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Empathy fatigue

Malavika Sangghvi 

Malavika Sangghvi

Three dastardly terrorist attacks over the festive season and the soul has got weary of their stomach-churning regularity.

When the bullets fell on the hapless students in Peshawar, I found myself responding in a hitherto unknown way. I did not watch the endless reruns on TV, couldn't get myself to click on the links to the episode on the Net and tried to avoid reading about it in the papers.

I did this because I did not want to be manipulated by the perpetrators of the crime into feeling the things they wanted me to feel: fear, outrage, hostility, grief or hatred. But also because I knew that if I saw the gunned and maimed children I would be moved to write eloquently and passionately about what had happened and I did not want to allow myself the luxury of such a response.

It would be too easy, to express anger and sadness, to denounce and to blame., to question and to pontificate.

Sitting so many miles away, safe in my cocoon, affording myself the luxury of empathy, I felt would be an insult to those who suffered real grief, felt real bullets and loss. In any case, I felt, it had all been said and done before. It hadn't helped then, it wouldn't help now.

Again when the lone terrorist struck in Sydney, I didn't watch the live action replay in real time beamed 24x7 across all media. Watching it from the safe confines of my bedroom, it occurred to me, was a bit like voyeurism.

Those men and women deserved better. Watching their moments of life and death with the option of the remote in my hand and the option to flick to another channel didn't seem right.

And writing the usual words of anger and helplessness and distress would only add to the already unmanageable word count produced in these times. I switched off the channel, I turned the page, and I got on with my life.

Two days ago when the ticker tapes and breaking news flashes began to tell of the attacks on the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, again I found I didn't have the stomach to tune in.

I let the sad news of the deaths fall on my ears one step removed, like distant thunder, a day later. A consummate news junkie, I find I don't want to switch on the news shows any more.

My reason for avoiding news of current disasters and tragedies though seemingly callous, is in effect an attempt to eschew the expected knee-jerk response and take a longer, considered view of what's happening in the world today.

Too often these days we respond, or are expected to respond, with alacrity and promptness with our tweets of grief and hashtags, when in fact experience has shown us that our tears and brave words, our acts of solidarity and concern, our candle light vigils and marches for peace, serve little else than to make us feel better for the moment.

They are momentary acts of cathartic empathy that make us feel better momentarily.

Have all the words written, the promises made, the signature campaigns mounted, the outrage on new channels made a blot of difference to curbing acts of terror?

They say "If you want different results, act differently." So perhaps the less we respond immediately, the more time and opportunity we give ourselves to go deeper, introspect, and try and find solutions to the issue of hatred and intolerance.

Or perhaps what I'm suffering from is just empathy fatigue.


Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer malavikasmumbai@gmail.com

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First Published: Sat, January 10 2015. 00:05 IST
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