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Last summer, I got into the habit of running along the Charles at night without my contacts on. One piece I began writing would have described the unique freedom of rushing forward with only my feet and the periodic, depthless glare of headlights to guide me. It would have drawn the parallel between running without contact lenses and the need to occasionally relax our myopic focuses and trust ourselves, trust the ground beneath our feet, trust the night.
In recent weeks, however, I have been reminded yet again that there is a tremendous inconsistency in the world—or maybe just a horrifying consistency—that at one point I ran alone, at night, essentially blind, not only without dire consequence but with a sense of exhilaration, while for others even the ground is a constant source of existential terror.
There are many necessary, ongoing discussions about whether Harvard is a safe space for all of its students. (The term “safe space” is politically loaded, but I mean literally safe.) But we do generally walk Harvard’s paths and streets absent deep fear—of passerby, of cars on the street, of what is overhead or underfoot. There have been incidents but, thank goodness, no circumstance historical or present gives us reason to be constantly on alert. Most of us don’t think about this much; it’s taken for granted. Confronted with the photograph of a blood-smeared church floor in Egypt, a written testimony from a sarin attack victim, or maps of plague eating through nations like cartographic leprosy, you might spend a few moments imagining what it would be like to walk from class wondering whether the next footfall will detonate something, or look at exactly how much nourishment is left on the dishware you pitch so casually into the trash.
Practically, such self-flagellating pivots cannot be applied to everything. I wouldn’t enjoy the food I ate because people are starving; I wouldn’t enjoy the clothes I wore because someone is unclothed. I’ve heard the “There are starving children in Africa!” line, intended to shame people out of food waste, become something of a joke.
Paul Bloom has written an entire book warning against the dangers of empathy, the exercise of experiencing the world as others do and feeling their pain. Empathy is overwhelming. It narrows our vision to the ones we empathize with. Empathy for one group comes at the cost of empathy for others. (Engaging in military action to help the sarin victims, for example, disregards even more numerous and beleaguered future war victims.) Too much empathy reduces our ability to achieve the higher goal the emotion aimed at in the first place, which is to do or allow the most possible good in the world. In lieu of empathy, Bloom says, we should have compassion, which in Bloom’s book is “a mixture of caring and detached cost-benefit analysis,” and leads to things like effective altruism—a marriage of concern for others’ suffering and a rational approach to alleviating it.
When I express frustration that there are so many things I have made no gestures to fix, I often hear or tell myself a version of this argument. It is no use sitting around all day festering in the pain of countless atrocities and injustices I cannot directly amend. There is no way each of us can individually fix every problem, and many students at Harvard are doing the best they can with available resources so that they will, one day, be able to effect meaningful, large-scale change. Bloom and others in the anti-empathy camp, including the ever-controversial moral philosopher Peter Singer, are proponents of “effective altruism,” which itself is a huge subject of debate.
But I’m not even sure that I’ve engaged properly with the “caring” part of compassion, let alone subsequent altruistic action. Between classes, assignments, sleeping, eating, and taking care of my body, I’m lucky to get through a handful of stories about the world beyond Harvard per day. I find myself disturbed, when I reengage with the external world in time to feel adequately appalled, by how little I need or have time to take the first step of caring during the daily rush. Maybe too much empathy is counterproductive, but on days when I am confronted with the testimony of a sarin victim or the photograph of a blood-spattered church in Egypt, I feel that I have been unforgivably asleep during the interim, and will almost immediately fall back into Harvard’s insular lull again until the next rupture.
What is our obligation to not even set out to fix the wrongs of the world, but to actively seek knowledge of them in the first place? It’s not even a question of whether I’m doing enough—first, am I thinking enough? Am I making myself uncomfortable enough with the things I choose to learn about the world? The answer implicit for me in the rhetorical questions is “no,” at least for now. But at this point, I really just want to keep myself accountable for asking the questions. To require that I consistently ask them at least of myself, that I keep my eyes open and my vista higher and wider than my own two feet, does not seem too much to ask. Beyond the safe bounds of metaphor and my runs on the Charles, barreling myopically through the dark rarely leads to good consequences.
Emily Zhao ’19, a former Crimson Associate Arts Editor, is an english and environmental science & public policy concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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