Shifting from psychic numbing

Fighting against a psychological phenomenon that affects perceptions of international crises.

March 10, 2016

We’re constantly busy internalizing various numbers: dates for history class, statistics for math, and equations for science. The unalarming and factual digits that we learn become engraved in our brains with little significance attached. However, we must also consider the numbers that mean more than just the number itself.

    It’s reasonable to us that Ronald Reagan served as the U.S. president from 1981 to 1989 and that the probability of seeing a head after a standard coin flip is 1/2, or that force equals mass times volume. Despite our automatic acceptance of these standard facts, statistics, and equations, it’s so daunting to process the hundreds of thousands of murders from the Herero and Namaqua genocide, Al-Anfal Campaign, Bangladeshi genocide, Ustasha genocide, Rwandan genocide, and Cambodian genocide.

     This amount of death is not easily accepted, and psychic numbing, the tendency for humans to ignore previous traumatic experiences due to an inability to comprehend the magnitude of the occurrences, is to blame.

Psychic numbing is what shifts our mindsets towards apathy and away from empathy.

It’s the reason that so many students and educated adults don’t know about the Srebrenica Massacre or the Bosnian Genocide, and it’s also the reason that a lot of us don’t do community service–the problem is too big to fathom.

     There are certainly service-seeking individuals at school and around the globe, but there are also plenty of students who choose not to take action.

     Spectrum spoke with students about the mindset behind their past decisions in relation to service. Charities that students have chosen to work with include Feed My Starving Children, the American Cancer Society, the World Wildlife Foundation, UNICEF, and Light of Hope, among many others. Reasons for engaging in service ranged from desiring to make a difference and help others to personal interest, religious or moral obligations, or padding for college applications.

     Many students interviewed have travelled around the globe, but rarely in connection to service trips and charities. Less than fifteen students travelled for service out of more than 120 who vacationed in isolated, luxurious portions of countries. So many students are unable to grow and comprehend the suffering in countries such as Mexico or France because they only experience the secluded paradises that these countries have to offer.

In a poll of 60, students responded with all of the countries they had travelled to outside of the U.S. The map at the top of the story is a color-coded representation of this data, with the same information (in correlating colors) above.

Maxine Whitely

     Kendall Emfield ‘17, Maggie Eshmawy ‘17, Elie Oxford ‘19, Lauren Hastings ‘19, Clayton Rae ‘16, and Emily Kranendonk ‘18 regularly seek opportunities to help others through community service, some through overseas travels and some through local charities.

     Emfield volunteers in Guatemala with Hearts in Motion. “We come from a place of having great opportunities and going to a really good school,” she says, “but not everyone has that and not everyone has a situation that can support them. So it’s important to give back to the community as you hope that the community will give back to you.”

     The concept of giving back to the community is also reflected by Eshmawy, who regularly donates her time to the Humane Society, Op Camp, and the American Cancer Society, and has created a club called C.A.R.E. for cancer awareness. “The community service [students] do is within Blake to help lower school students or something and a lot of people don’t feel connected to that [form of service] because they feel that Blake is a privileged school and that we can be doing better.”

     On an international level, Oxford has travelled to St. Lucia to teach students from third to sixth grade math and reading. While Oxford narrows in on education specifically, she also notes that “every student should be encouraged to [do service]. . . I think that some people view service as unnecessary because they think that other people are handling it. They also might view it as too large of a time commitment, but there are actually many different forms of service that have different time commitments. Few people know how a little service goes a long way, and if a lot of people chose to participate, it would greatly help whatever cause they are volunteering for.”

     While each act of service that Oxford refers to is important, some global issues that students were once active in helping have a continued level of necessity without much sustained involvement by volunteers. In the fall, David Graham’s Global Communities classes raised $1,200 for Syrian refugees,  but continued talks and support have dwindled since then. Empathy turned

to inaction while the global crisis continued.

     It’s large-scale crises like this that create the phenomenon of psychic numbing. The size of the problem simply becomes overwhelming. The Syrian refugee crisis is a result of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, and while there was a lot of media attention to this crisis over the summer, both news outlets and students have touched on it less and less. This isn’t because the crisis has resolved itself, but because we neurologically lack the ability to comprehend the enormity of the situation.

     13.5 million Syrians remain desperate for humanitarian assistance and 4.6 million of them are displaced internationally. In response to this, the United States only granted 1,869 refugees asylum in 2015.  What do these numbers mean to you? Is it physically possible to internalize these data points? That so many people – 2.5 times the population of Minnesota – lack necessary aid, while the richest country in the world has taken in the equivalent of .000006 of its population in refugees, is staggering.

     Hastings believes that the insufficient amount of assistance toward the Syrian refugee crisis is because “news coverage is lacking and it makes it seem like it’s not a problem.” Similarly, Rae explains that “a lot of people empathize with the Syrian refugees crisis. It’s not that we don’t care about these people, it’s just that there seems to be more pressing matters to some people.” Yet the reason why news coverage on the Syrian Refugee Crisis has declined is because the sheer scale of the issue can make people feel helpless, detached, and numb.

     Psychic numbing is no excuse to resort to apathy, however. Count to ten; count to 100–there are human beings underneath those numbers. Apathy may seem easier, but it is detrimental to the person and the millions in need. When the problem feels so large that you are helpless, remind yourself of one: one person, one story, or one encounter, and keep your skin in the game.

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