Why Them not Me?

What makes me worthy of living a relatively privileged lifestyle? Why was I born into a country where a twenty-first century infrastructure caters for my comforts, while others have to walk tens of miles, every day, just to get access to clean water? How come I hold a passport issued by a safe country, when so many have known nothing but war all their lives?

I find myself asking these questions regularly and, quite possibly, so have many of you. Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered what suffering you’d be going through had you been born female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan; or how terrified you’d be, living in Nigeria or Syria, where death seems to live just around the corner.

Last week, I found myself thinking about this mystery of life once again, and for good reason. Ten days ago, several hundred people died while crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to southern Europe. Most of them lost their lives trapped in the lower deck of their boat, where they had been locked in by their traffickers. I couldn’t help thinking of the parents whose young children clung on to them, screaming, as they all met their horrible end. “Why them, not me?”, I thought to myself.

Rephrasing the Question

Life seems to be a continuous flow of situations like this. So, at my age, I have had quite some time to attempt to rationalize the guilt associated with them. The soul-searching is a work in progress, but, up to now, here is what I’ve come up with.

Nothing makes me more worthy than others, of being born where I was. The phenomenon of life is oblivious to the different human realities across the planet. It just delivers us into existence wherever the element of randomness happens to choose. In fact, as far as life is concerned, all mortals are created equal, until they actually arrive in this world, that is. So the question is not so much, “Why am I more worthy?” as it is “Why are the others not worthy?”.

As I see it, the fault lies with humanity, not some game of chance that plays out at birth. It is humans, not the universe or whatever god you believe in, who deliver us into misery, or a lack of it. So, rather than feeling guilty for having it good, we should be asking ourselves why we are not doing more to help those who have it so bad.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

At this point, you would be forgiven for thinking that I believe the human species to be inherently evil, with little capacity for good. However, you would be wrong. Yes, humanity is indeed responsible for a lot of evil, but the vast majority of people are in fact empathetic and do care about others. Unfortunately, sometimes our nature, which is ingrained in our psychology, makes us come across as heartless, even though we are not really so.

The tragedy in the Mediterranean is a case in point. This boat was just the latest in a long stream of migrant-packed vessels taking this route. Worse still, the hundreds of people who died on it were by no means the first. In fact, according to the International Organization for Migration, at least 22,000 migrants have lost their lives crossing over from Africa to Europe since the year 2000.

So why is it only now that the world seems to be waking up to the plight of these people? Why is it that the EU started talking about military operations against traffickers over the last few days, when it ignored the problem for so many years? How come last week, after 700 people died in a single incident, politicians were talking about “genocide”, when the week before it was just business as usual? Did we really require an incident with such a large number of fatalities for people to start taking notice?

The sad answer to that last question is, yes. As humans, our subconscious reaction to tragedy is proportionate to its impact on us. The impact is a function of proximity and scale, with the concept of proximity, here, having more dimensions to it than just physical distance. So, while thousands of people have been dying in the Mediterranean over the last decade and a half, most people beyond the shores of Italy, Malta, Spain and Greece, barely even noticed, because it was a slow, if constant, far away trickle of small tragedies.

So should we feel guilty for our lack of empathy in such cases? Well, we certainly shouldn’t celebrate it. On the other hand, it is really just the product of how humans have evolved to prioritize situations requiring their attention — the closer to home, the more visible it is on our radar; the bigger it is, the larger that pulsating green dot on the screen. However, the development of human nature aside, it is a flaw in our psychological makeup and we should try to fix it or compensate for its existence. How can we do this?

Know, Empathize, Act

First of all, it is our civic and moral duty to know what is going on in the world around us. It is just as important as voting. It is useless feeling a sense of duty toward society to cast that ballot paper if your choice is motivated purely by your concerns and those of the people in your immediate proximity. That bubble some people may be living in, where they are unaware of the struggles that others are facing, is where the fight to boost society’s collective compassion is lost.

Secondly, we need to work on enhancing our sense of empathy. This really amounts to a simple mental exercise, whereby one puts one’s self in the shoes of a person suffering an injustice and asks, “How would I like to be treated?”.

Now you know what is happening around you. You are able to feel the pain of others and understand the injustices they suffer. What can you do about the situation though? After all, you’re just an individual, right? The world is run by governments and large corporations and we’re powerless against them. Are we, really?

Politicians want to be seen to be addressing the concerns of their voters. That is how they accumulate votes. Corporations, on the other hand, will change their behaviours if they sense a threat to their bottom line. The problem is getting enough people to scream in unison, not only to be heard, but to be recognized as a force that must be listened to.

This brings us to the third, and final, point of action. While understanding our limitations as individuals, we need to act out against injustices by gathering or joining a critical mass of opinion that will force the powers that be to effect change. We can influence other voters and consumers by making them aware of the injustices we know about. In the age of social media, this has never been easier. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Start or join an existing page or group on Facebook.
  • Share a link or a thought on Twitter.
  • Write a blog.
  • Send an email to your local representative.
  • Create or join an activist group on Meetup.
  • Take part in demonstrations when they are organized.
  • Design and/or wear a t-shirt with a thought-provoking message on it.
  • Sign petitions.

The reality is that the number of things you can do is limited only by your imagination and your motivation to help those in need. Remember that any act, however small it may be, will help, as long as it involves getting the message out there to others and ultimately to those who can bring about change.

You may not be convinced. You may even think I’m being naive and simplistic. There’s every chance you’re right and I myself would admit that if my approach has any merit to it at all, it will not always work. Having said that, I will leave you with this simple thought to reflect upon.

If EU citizens had made it clear to their politicians that they were concerned for the welfare of illegal immigrants; if they had been campaigning for something to be done to prevent them from falling prey to human traffickers; would those 700 people have died? Maybe they wouldn’t have. Then again, maybe they would have perished just the same, but at least the man and woman on the street would have tried. Now it’s a question everyone will have to live with for the rest of their lives because they left it too long to even begin trying.