My job at the United Nations is to inform the public about the state of our world. That involves stories of ever-growing numbers of people suffering, wars erupting, a deadly virus spreading, economies collapsing and the planet taking revenge for being repeatedly abused.
This information matters. It is about the consensus of the science of climate change or guidance on protection from COVID-19. It represents the surging data of need — numbers of war refugees, girls forced to marry, fathers and mothers losing their incomes, families starving, children out of school, people trafficked, and workers exploited.
These are the statistics of suffering. We communicate them to create outrage. To spur governments to change policy course, to get the rich to donate, to urge fighters to lay down their arms.
But there is a saying, “statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.” So, we also tell human stories. Stories that move people to care and to drive them to act.
Because too often though, instead of driving change, data of mass suffering does the opposite — it creates indifference.
“The more who die, the less we care”
It is no wonder. Social psychologists tell us that we become overwhelmed by big numbers, numbed by their magnitude. One social scientist, Paul Slovic put it this way: “the more who die, the less we care.”
We see the evidence in trends in the news media. Even before COVID-19 devastation dominated the headlines, people were turning away from the gloom and doom of the daily news. People instead search their social media feeds for hope and too often are led down rabbit holes of fake cures and conspiracies.
That is why many news organizations and we at the UN offer stories containing not just facts, but also solutions. We tell tales of resilience, prospects for a better recovery, and also ways to pitch in and make a difference.
We are encouraged by the scientists who tell us taking action to help others is deeply gratifying. James R. Doty, a neuroscientist at Stanford who studies compassion, said:
“The thing that gives deep satisfaction and meaning in someone’s life is being of service to others.”
According to his studies, the acquisition of things creates feelings of emptiness. But there is even a profound physiological effect when we give and care for others — a decrease in stress hormones, improvement in our cardiac function, lowering of inflammation, and release of cortisone which gives us a sense of pleasure and reward.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”
As we face the biggest global crisis in the UN’s 75-year history, we need compassion to go viral.
Some say this virus is a great equalizer because it threatens us all. But it is not. Anjana Ahuja of the Financial Times wrote: “This crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich.” We have the means to retreat into Zoom conferences and protect ourselves from exposure and get the best treatment if we fall ill.
It is said that the more privileged we become, the less compassion we feel. Compassion is an instinct, but it must also be a decision. As Gandhi said, it must be exercised to be strong.
At the UN, we live and breathe compassion for others. We believe in the dignity of every human being. Dignity means enough income to feed your family, it means every child in school, health care for all, equality in all its forms, clean water and sanitation, peace and security, and a healthy planet. With the Sustainable Development Goals as our blueprint, we were succeeding in a remarkable collaborative exercise to build that world.
But COVID-19 is setting us back decades, especially in poorer countries that were making remarkable progress reducing inequality and pulling people of poverty. A deep global recession has swept the world.
As the virus spread, it not only brought into full focus the inequalities that still exist, but it exacerbated them.
As people lose their incomes, fathom this grim prognosis — 100 million more people could be pushed over the edge into extreme poverty. As a result, the World Food Programme Chief, David Beasley warned we could face famines in ‘biblical proportions’.
Commenting to the media after his organization won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, he said the number of people “marching toward starvation” has doubled, jumping from 135 million to 270 million since the pandemic started. He appealed to the world’s billionaires who have seen their wealth surge in the crisis to pitch in to “save millions of lives and save humanity from one of the greatest catastrophes since World War II.”
In his recent Nelson Mandela lecture, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said: “While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts while others are clinging to drifting debris.”
When I think back to my childhood, I realize we were urged to compete to be the ones sitting on those superyachts. Winners were rewarded in the classroom or on the sports field; losers were relegated to the background. But I believe what makes us real winners is how we treat those whose legs weren’t built to run as fast. Whose confidence was never nourished, whose skin color excluded them from ascending the same ladder of knowledge, acceptance and prosperity.
It soon became clear to me that the lottery of birth circumstances would determine how people got on in life, whether it be their race, their gender, their family or ethnic background, or whether they have a disability.
I grew up the daughter of schoolteachers in a wealthy waterfront suburb of Boston that was almost 100% white and very affluent. My family was far from wealthy, but we had a nice home, enough food to eat, and a good school to attend. I tried hard not to compare myself to my millionaire friends who spent afternoons by their pools, vacations in their second homes in Florida or on the ski slopes of Vermont. But I did feel envy.
It was only when — in a gesture by my compassionate parents — an African-American boy named Wesley came to live with us on weekdays, bused in from the troubled Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, that I realized others faced profound poverty and discrimination.
Wesley arrived at my high school as part of a desegregation program called METCO. Monday mornings he would have to get up at the crack of dawn to ride over one hour to attend an all-white school so black students like him could have access to better education. It was intended to give white students a chance “to share a learning experience with students with differing social, economic and racial backgrounds.” I couldn’t help thinking, why didn’t every neighborhood have a good school? Why didn’t any families of other races live in our town?
I am not sure what happened to Wesley, and whether this opportunity helped him rise. I do know it influenced me to understand two things: I was among the fortunate, and there must be ways for everyone else to have the same chances.
When I entered my professional life, it was the age when young people were flocking to jobs in finance as society idealized wealth. When the JFK saying that inspired so many into public service,“ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” was out of fashion.
Somehow though I did feel that drive to contribute to our public good. I entered international service to work on freedom of the media, human rights, and democracy-building, then later on nuclear non-proliferation. But it was when worked in the field of refugee protection at UNHCR that I felt my compassion muscles swell. My job leading communications on behalf of the world’s forcibly displaced meant traveling to war zones and refugee camps, bringing back stories of suffering and resilience and appealing for action.
During the height of the refugee crisis in October 2015, I traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos where refugees from Syria were arriving by boat. There I met a sweet 11-year-old boy named Osauma who had braved the dangerous journey all alone and seemed traumatized but determined. He told me he just barely escaped recruitment into an extremist group. His grandfather smuggled him to the Turkish border and set him off on his own.
When I asked him where he was going, he said “I am going to join my father who lives in New Jersey.” He had no idea how far away that was, and how a refugee boy like him could get there. Before leaving him in the care of a UNHCR colleague, I took a photo of Osauma with his dog and posted his story on Facebook, hoping someone might help.
This is when a chain of compassion ignited. A friend living in New Jersey was so moved — she also had a son Ousama’s age — that she asked me for his details so she could help. Then a team of champions pitched in, moved by how much she cared. A pro bono lawyer, a State Department official, a U.S. Ambassador, a shelter in Athens — soon red tape unravelled and he was reunited with his Dad. A scholarship was arranged for him to enter a private school in Vermont where he is a top student and athlete now. Later his Mom and sisters could leave the war in Syria for the peace of the U.S. too, all thanks to one photo, and one heart moved and compassion that went viral.
A few years after that encounter, I got very sick. With a stage three cancer diagnosis, I realized that self-compassion also matters, and that it is linked to others. If I care for my own health and survival, I can go on as loving wife, a mother, a daughter and a friend. I allowed myself to receive care, to experience vulnerability. This in turn opened in me a whole new understanding for other people’s feelings of powerlessness and dependency.
One day as I was receiving chemotherapy, I remembered a Syrian refugee with breast cancer I met in Lebanon. She lived in a muddy field in a tent getting by on the little assistance UNHCR was able to provide. Even though her country was a war zone and half the hospitals were destroyed, there was still affordable cancer care in Damascus. So, to save her life and to survive for her children, she risked the dangerous journey every few weeks across the border and back to get a chemotherapy infusion.
I often thought of her as I took the short bus ride to my cancer hospital. Here, with the best of modern Western medicine, my cancer faced a formidable foe. This made me feel fortunate but also deeply concerned for others who didn’t have this kind of care.
We should recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic is sending us a message. We are only safe when everyone is safe. That we must exercise our muscles of compassion deliberately to overcome indifference. To create chains of compassion that go as viral as the virus.
To reset and recover better than we ever were.