By Rev. Tabitha Isner
I heard on Minnesota Public Radio today that Americans just aren’t giving money for Ebola the way they do for natural disasters. Following the earthquake in Haiti, a disaster which took the lives of over 200,000 people, charities received over $1.4 billion. In contrast, the Ebola virus will likely kill more than that number in the next six months, but very few charities are reporting significant donations.
So why do we donate for natural disasters but not for outbreaks? I think the answer has to do with fear.
When a natural disaster happens, the damage is largely done by the time we hear about it. The fact that an earthquake happened in Haiti is terrible, but it is not a threat to us here. It’s sad, but it’s not scary.
The Ebola outbreak is different. There isn’t a day on which it “happened.” And because there’s not a date when we can say it started, there’s also not a date on which it ended. It is still happening. The damage is far from being done. Instead, it is growing, expanding, deepening by the day… and you might be next.
When terrible things happen to other people, but we continue to feel safe, it awakens our sympathy. We feel grateful for the blessing that it wasn’t us, and we become generous givers.
When terrible things happen to other people and we might be next, it awakens our anxiety. We feel sorry for the people who have been victims, but our fear keeps us focused on protecting ourselves rather than on helping those who have already been affected.
A few years ago I would have made this observation and then concluded that it’s a crying shame how fear and self-preservation stand in the way of loving your neighbor.
Today I find that conclusion unsatisfying.
Let’s say we apply the same “fear makes you selfish” principle to police brutality such as that seen in the Ferguson shootings. As a white woman, the shootings in Ferguson and surrounding areas seem to me analogous to the earthquake in Haiti. The fact that it happened is terrible, but it’s not a threat to my personal safety. The fact that it happened to those young men means nothing at all about what will happen to me. But to a young black man (or the parents of a young black man), this spate of police shootings may sound a whole lot more like Ebola. Not only did it happen to those young men, but it’s possible that I might be next.
But contrary to the “fear makes you selfish” notion, the fear that those young black men face is not a barrier to their compassion. Their fear is what makes them truly able to empathize. And when they stand up to this injustice, it is extraordinary precisely because they are afraid. Precisely because they have good reason to be afraid.
In contrast, if I attend a protest, raise my arms, and shout “don’t shoot,” my actions don’t reflect my selflessness. They reflect my privilege. I can afford to do that because I know it’s highly unlikely there will be any real consequences for me.
So what am I to do when faced with a tragedy and protected by privilege? (I’m not entirely sure – this idea is new to me!) But here’s what I’m going to try..
1) I am going to admit that my privilege results in my inability to fully empathize or understand. And because my personal experience isn’t relevant, I am going to commit to reading, listening, and asking for the stories of those who have experienced what I have not and likely will not ever face.
2) With those stories in hand, I am going to try to imagine that I might be next. I’m going to let it play out fully in my imagination. The idea that this could happen to me, to my family. I’m going to let it overwhelm me, terrify me, paralyze and outrage me. I’m going to let that fear loose on my gut and my nerves.
3) And having felt just a small portion of that fear, I am going to remind myself that it is someone else for whom this nightmare is a reality. And that it’s unreasonable to ask someone in that state to take sole responsibility for righting this wrong. So I had better put that privilege to good use.
If you have good ideas for how to develop compassion in the face of privilege, send your ideas along. I’d love to hear them!
Tabitha Isner is a government bureaucrat by day and a church consultant when she can talk someone into it. She confesses to a long-standing habit of practicing theology, feminism, and statistical analyses.