Training Our Instincts Toward More Distant Compassion

Ideally, we would have infinite hours in a day to tikkun olam, help repair the world. In reality, the amount of time we set aside for this mitzvah is limited. This begs the question: where should we direct our good intentions with the finite time and energy we have? Should we focus on our local community and the people we understand? Some argue that the more personal your connection to a person, the deeper your empathy and the greater your motivation to assist him or her. Another opinion is that we should direct our attention to the most clamant situations, irrespective of their geographic or relational distance.

For the past three years, since before I began college, I have been actively involved in STAND, a student movement that works to end the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. I have attended conferences and spearheaded my school’s chapter of STAND. At first glance, my efforts are directed towards the most dire situations (genocide), as opposed to the most immediate, local causes (hunger and homelessness in NY, immigration issues etc).

But if you take a second look, my Darfur related activism includes personal connections. To see the people of Darfur as the faraway “others” with no connection to my life would be denying several important bonds that we share. For instance, my family history includes my grandparents’ escape from the Holocaust. This painful and personal legacy of genocide ties me to Darfurians, who are currently enduring genocide. I imagine that the grandchildren of those who survive the genocide in Darfur will recall their ancestor’s stories, just as I, a third-generation survivor of the Holocaust, can recount my grandparents’ memories of surviving.

Additionally, my female identity ties me to the women of Darfur. The women of Darfur endure, and often die as a result of, sexual assault inflicted by the janjaweed militia and the Sudanese army. I have never experienced anything similar to the gruesome and horrific sexual abuse that these women have (baruch hashem). However, even in the United States I know that I am at risk for sexual assault and abuse. I never walk home alone in the dark and have learned how to spot and avoid sexually aggressive men. Living in this world as a woman is not entirely safe yet, and my fight to protect my body is intimately related to my fight to protect the women of Darfur.

These examples illustrate how even though I have never met a person from Darfur, nor have I had the opportunity to travel to Sudan I still feel that there are tangible links between my life and the life of a Darfurian. I believe the real challenge is not to choose whether to be a community activist addressing local issues or a “neediest cases” activist, often acting on behalf of people you have never met. The more important struggle is to turn these seemingly distant and harrowing crises into personal issues. The power of the media and our access to information allows us to see our own reflections in the faces of others, though they live thousands of miles away and speak foreign languages. With our limited energy, I believe that we must address the neediest cases with the compassion and attention to complexity that we instinctively grant to our neighbors.

–Sophie Glass

2 comments on “Training Our Instincts Toward More Distant Compassion

  1. Maggie on

    Those are some very real and tangible links, which make the crisis seem that much closer to home. Thank you.

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