To everyone on the Internet telling me to keep Paris in my heart: you don’t need to tell me, it’s already there.
To everyone on the Internet reminding me that while the attacks in Paris are tragic, just as tragic things have recently happened in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan: you’re right, but… I still care more about Paris.
What can I say? I love Paris. I have wonderful memories of visiting as a small child, as an awkward teenager, and as a culture-shocked adult returning from several years of living in Asia. So of course my heart is going to ache as I read reports of the attacks. Because frankly, this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in Paris.
Over the past few weeks I’ve seen travelers posting in social media about tragedies in Beirut, Kabul, and Kenya, to name a few, with moving words about how sad it is to see such violence in these countries they’ve visited and loved. But while reading through these posts I couldn’t summon the same emotions they were showing. Why?
For one, I’ve never been to those countries, so I don’t have the same emotional attachments to them that I do to Paris. Secondly, this sort of violence happens in that part of the world all the time – it’s not exactly shocking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still incredibly sad – in fact I tried to overlay my Facebook profile picture with a Lebanese flag but Facebook didn’t seem to be offering that as option – but it’s hard for me to physically feel that sadness.
Paris brought me to tears because I love it so. But do you want to hear something bad? Around the same time I heard about the attacks in Paris I heard that there had been an earthquake in Japan, and it was thoughts of Japan, not Paris that filled my mind that night, remembering the awful earthquakes that rocked Japan the two times I lived there. That non-event had me more concerned than a horrible attack, which might begin to explain why the loss of 130 lives in Paris has me shedding more tears than the loss of half a million in Iraq.
It’s part of being human, right? We protect our loved ones and defend our homes. Our hearts aren’t big enough to take on the problems of the entire world.
At least my heart isn’t.
My friend Stephanie has one of the most prestigious law degrees and could be making all the money, but instead she works for Human Rights Watch helping the refugees. While my friend Ann focuses on problems in her backyard, working as a counselor at a jail. I criticize her for never leaving the country, but the truth is the world she works in is more foreign to me than anywhere “off the beaten path” I’ve ventured.
I wish so much I could be like them, and I’m grateful people like them exist, but we can’t all be those people, right?
I know I’m supposed to care about the outside world, but what can I really do about it? The situation seems as hopeless as global warming. And to be perfectly honest, my privileged bubble is safe and happy and beautiful (I mean hello, I just moved to Norway). In fact, the only thing that ever gets me out of it is something I have to force myself to do.
This is embarrassing to admit, but I think the real reason I travel to some of the places I do is to teach myself to feel for people and places I otherwise wouldn’t care about.
Basically, I travel because I’m a horrible person.
I didn’t know much about Western China, Central Asia, the Caucasus, or even Iran before I visited, but I sensed that that was a reason I needed to go. While I took several college courses focusing on Tibet, I had no idea the Uyghurs in Xinjiang were suffering just as much in China. I vaguely knew that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had some of the world’s worst dictators, but I couldn’t bring myself to truly care until I visited and fell in love with the countries.
I had no idea Armenians even spoke Russian until I visited and learned they’re still struggling to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. And while news of tragedies in Iraq has me nodding numbly along about how awful the situation is, I now follow Iranian news with genuine concern and anxiety.
I’m afraid I’m always going to care more about what I know, and have trouble truly empathizing with problems that feel totally foreign to me, especially when they just seem too overwhelmingly depressing.
But the thing is, traveling the world has taught me that despite different cultural beliefs and practices, deep down we humans are all the same. Though growing up in a family half from the conservative Christian hills of Kentucky and half from the socialist mountains of Norway, it’s a notion I guess I’ve always been familiar with. And one that usually comforts me, but today that thought has suddenly filled me with worry. Because if the rest of the world is like me, I’m afraid our future might be in deep merde.
Isn’t my failure to empathize, my close-minded concern for my own happiness and beliefs, and my wish to protect my world from ugly outside suffering basically the reason behind every war ever? Isn’t it this attitude that’s the problem here? I mean, I would never kill innocent people, obviously, but if the circumstances were different… would I? Because I’m not really doing anything to help them now.
What can we do?