Sometimes my husband doesn’t remember things I tell him, usually things that fall into the “where we need to be when” category. It’s not that he wasn’t listening, he explains, it’s that he was suffering a denial of services attack.
We’re both lucky my husband makes me laugh. FYI: a denial of services attack happens when a targeted server is flooded by so many requests it experiences overload and can’t respond.
It’s a lame excuse when we’re talking dinner with friends but less so when we’re talking about interfacing with the world around us. Who hasn’t felt incapable of responding to the seemingly endless suffering presented by media images of a world in chaos, trauma and turmoil?
One-on-one we know how to respond to someone in need. Compassion wells up. But our natural capacity seems to shrink in proportion to the number of people involved. And when the actors and need are global, individual capacity feels inconsequential. We call it “compassion fatigue.” So we throw up our heart’s hands and hope someone somewhere is doing something.
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My friend was sentenced to the Youth Detention Center for shoplifting, smoking weed, and self-mutilation. Feel free to re-read that sentence. His first night, another kid in line wasn’t paying attention and messed up the count. A staff member grabbed the quivering boy’s jumpsuit and screamed in his face: “Why the hell were you looking out the window? Is it because your mammy smoked crack while you festered in her womb? Or are you a retard?!”
When the kid mouthed something in return, the staffer grabbed a fistful of the boy’s hair, kneed him in the stomach, flipped him to the floor and called for backup.
The additional staff zip-tied the boy’s hands behind his back, shackled his feet and then, one on each end, lifted the kid like a large suitcase. When the boy cried out in pain, a third staffer kicked him in the ribs and told him to shut up.
Off the boy went to Intensive Care, where children were stripped naked and thrown into a cell with no blanket or mattress. If a kid fought, angered the staff, or harmed himself, he might spend weeks of 23-hour lockdown in a dark cell with limited food. Try to escape entirely and his injuries once caught would likely land him in the hospital.
Who deserves compassion? When we on the outside deny services to those in need, we aren’t just saying “you don’t count.” We’re saying “I count more than you do.”
We sometimes ask incarcerated friends to share their worst experiences inside prison. Almost always they detail times when they were unable to help someone needing medical attention or protection. Often because the perpetrators were part of the system, able to use excessive force with impunity.
Repressing our impulse to help, denying our service, is so uncomfortable, so morally distressing, we eventually shut down. The inability to act hardens into cynical detachment, our friends in prison explain with a most humane shame.
Death row offenders are some of the most forgotten people in the world. A Catholic sister in Iowa wrote this to me recently. She’d read it in an article that included about 10 offender names, some of whom lived here in Raleigh. She randomly selected one. They’ve been corresponding weekly for three years now.
When the sister discovered the men in North Carolina were allowed only one 10-minute phone call per year, she decided to find pen pals for about two dozen other offenders. She hopes “it helps a little bit.”
It isn’t giving that fatigues us; it’s resisting the impulse to give. It’s exhausting to deny our natural compassionate impulse. It’s deadening to pretend that every act of kindness doesn’t count.
As punishment for recounting a story of his previous drug use to another kid at the youth center, my friend had to write one thousand times, I am a sick man. Before he was allowed to eat. I am a sick man.
Last year the sister wrote a birthday card with a personal message to each offender on death row. One hundred and fifty cards.
There are so many ways to count.
Where do you need to be when? It’s a beautiful question. Only you know the answer. What moves your heart? What expands your sense of connection? If watching the news shrivels your capacity for compassion, for goodness sake turn it off. Who benefits from more anger, cynicism or grumpiness?
This isn’t denial; it’s choosing to attend to what we can do. There’s immense release in stepping into compassionate service. Saving a historic structure, sharing a meal with someone who’s homeless, playing music for the dying, fostering a cat: it all counts.
The only world available to us is the one right here, now, at our fingertips. It’s not an obstacle to our happiness, this messy, complicated place. It’s the only key we have.
Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices, telling the stories of under-represented communities. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org