Saturday, September 5, 2015

The distinction between generality and particularity, and how it affects compassion

We've been reading "A Circle of Quiet" by Madeleine L'Engle and we were struck by how so much of what she wrote 40 years ago is still current. She writes of a play she'd probably seen a decade before, Rhinoceros.

"It starts out in a small French village on a Sunday morning; everything is normal and ordinary; the people in the village are very much like the people we know, like us. Then a rhinoceros strolls through the village square, and this first rhinoceros is like a presage of plague, because the people of the village start, one by one, turning into rhinos; they are willing to give up being their particular selves, to give up being human beings, to become beasts. And one of the characters says, 'Oh, why couldn't all this happen in some other country so we could just read about it in the papers?'"

Madeleine's point is that it's easier to be uninvolved in distant generalities and to shy away from particularities.

Her mother had "seen the advent of gas light to replace oil lamps, of electric light to replace gas...the advent of the telephone, wireless, cables, television, all our means of instant communication...the development of bicycles, automobiles, prop planes, jet planes, rockets to the moon." Madeleine considers how children (she wrote this in the early 1970s) had never known a world without machines.

"We can't absorb it all. We know too much, too quickly, and one of the worst effects of this avalanche of technology is the loss of compassion. Newsprint is too small for me now; I listen to the news on WQXR. I find that I always listen carefully to the weather; this affects me. If there is some kind of strike going on in New York -- there usually is -- which will inconvenience me, I get highly indignant. I am apt to pay less attention when the daily figures for deaths on the battlefields are given; it is too far away; I cannot cope emotionally. Occasionally it hits me hard when I hear the announcer say that there were only fifty-four deaths this week: only? what about the mothers, wives, sweethearts, children, of the fifty-four men who were killed? But it has to happen close at home before I can truly feel compassion."

Later she shares the story of hearing that a young girl had been hit by a car in their village. At the time she and her husband ran the general store and, since it was centrally located, they always knew what was going on. It was where people came to shop and share the news of the village. Everyone was relieved when the child suffered no serious injuries. She concludes by saying, "Compassion is nothing one feels with the intellect alone. Compassion is particular; it is never general."

This week we saw pictures of migrants crowded onto small boats and large ships at sea...

Photos like these are too general to do more than warrant a passing glance. We are on the other side of the world, and can "just read about it in the papers" -- or in most cases today, online.

But the photo that touched a nerve for all the world was the one of a small boy lying on a beach, at the edge of the water. We can see the masses on the boats and not see their faces, but one small child brings it home to us: this tragedy unfolding in Europe as thousands upon thousands flee war-torn countries looking for a place of peace. They are individuals and when we see that, we are moved to compassion.

It happened with another photo this week:
This Syrian refugee, holding his exhausted child and trying to sell pens in order to survive, struck a chord that moved people to respond.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by all that's happening. It takes the particular story of one to reach us on a visceral level. The ability to be connected to the world 24/7 has innoculated us, to a great extent, but all it takes is one individual story to move us back to the true kind of connectedness.

A missionary blogger that I follow had this to say:
"Most of the people concerned about the migrants have never tried living in a foreign country. They've never packed their belongings into a few bags and replanted themselves into another culture. They have no sense of how much paperwork is required to retain legality. Refugees are doing all of this while living in a panic, while they are trying to escape to safety." 

I can attest to the mounds of paperwork required to be a legal foreigner in another country. It took more than four years for me to become a legal resident of Argentina. This involved traveling to the Argentine consulate in Chicago before we even moved, and then multiple trips to the provincial capital as well as Buenos Aires. It required filling out forms not once, not twice, not three times, but four times before I was finally granted legal residency status.

Four years and four applications. Think about this. Refugees fleeing war do not have the luxury of waiting four years for their paperwork to be approved. Have you considered what you would do if you and your family were threatened by severe deprivation and almost certain death?

I'm not trying to stir the pot and get into a debate on immigration, either in Europe or the United States. I do want us to stop and consider that each immigrant is a particular individual, with their very own story, and we need to get past generalties because Madeleine was absolutely right: "Compassion is particular; it is never general."


Terra said...

Thanks for this reminder about her wonderful book, I have it and will read it again.

Ivan said...

Thank you for including me in this journey. I've so enjoyed your reading to me and the conversations that follow. Te amo mucho.

Mari said...

You are so right about the compassion we feel when we see one out of the masses. You raise some very good, thought provoking points. There should be some way that people can come in legally without 4 yers or difficulty and paperwork!

rita said...

Thank you for taking the time to share these thought-provoking, hopefully compassion-bearing words. May God lead us to the particulars He wants each of us to be involved in.

The Bug said...