Question for the day: Why is it that we care less about the people farther away from us than those closer to us?

An old episode of Twilight Zone, to illustrate.  I’m taking this verbatim from David Eagleman’s new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, which is great, by the way.

A stranger in an overcoat shows up at a man’s door and proposes a deal.  “Here is a box with a single button on it.  All you have to do is press the button and I will pay you a thousand dollars.”

“What happens when I press the button?” the man asks.

The stranger tells him, “When you press the button, someone far away, someone you don’t even know, will die.”

The man suffers over the moral dilemma through the night.  The button box rests on his kitchen table.  He stares at it.  He paces around it.  Sweat clings to his brow.

Finally, after an assessment of his desperate financial situation, he lunges to the box and punches the button.  Nothing happens.  It is quiet and anticlimactic.

Then there is a knock at the door.  The stranger in the overcoat is there, and he hands the man the money and takes the box.  “Wait,” the man shouts after him.  “What happens now?”

The stranger says, “Now I take the box and give it to the next person.  Someone far away, someone you don’t even know.”

We all do this, every day, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Might this be why we don’t care, really care, about what’s going on in Africa?  Might this be why we won’t stand up for what’s right until we meet a person who symbolizes the civil rights movement we’re currently trying to crush?  Might it be why we don’t really care about the third world land owners who’ve had their land ripped away by large American corporations so that those corporations can steal the natural resources, pay those land owners a pittance, and ship the product back to America for us?

I wonder.  How can we change that about ourselves?

[Post image: Kids having fun by shofar on stock.xchng]


  1. Cherie
    Sep 03, 2011

    Three reasons come to mind: it’s easy; we’re lazy; and we’re selfish. When we see a growing homeless problem in our neighborhood, that is not easy to ignore, plus it might threaten our safety and our property values. When the same thing happens in, say, Haiti, we don’t see it, it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it and we’re glad because we really don’t want to spend our time doing anything about it.

    An example of something I struggle with is industrial meat (I’m a vegetarian). We don’t see slaughterhouses, so we don’t know what’s going on, and many Americans feel they cannot live without meat. When it is pointed out that the animals are literally tortured to death, people don’t want to hear it because they would either 1) have to be more self-less by giving up meat or 2) take the time to seek out humanely raised/slaughtered meat sources. It’s easier to just pretend it’s not happening. And, since we don’t see it, that’s easy to do. I think the same thing applies to many products we purchase that are produced at great cost to others in the undeveloped world.

    • Elissa
      Sep 04, 2011

      Yes, yes, yes, I agree! I wish there were some way to create awareness on all these issues, but I suppose people are doing it slowly, one issue at a time. Have you seen the documentary The End of Poverty? So sad, and so overwhelming. Where to begin? Sigh.

      • Cherie
        Sep 05, 2011

        Elissa: No, I haven’t seen that documentary but have just added it to my Netflix queue. I did read Jeffrey Sach’s book by that same name and saw hope there. But, as you said, it is very overwhelming and hard to choose where to begin. I just saw “Romero” and realized how little I knew about what had gone on in El Salvador and that I should have been more aware and caring. Then it struck me that this is not just “history,” that these types of things are occurring every day in some part of the world.

        I like what Clare aid about having more documentaries to help us connect with others around the world. I would love to have a group in my community where we get together, watch documentaries, and then discuss what we can do to change lives and end pain and suffering. This kind of gathering would change how we do life.

        • Elissa
          Sep 05, 2011

          I think the documentary is based on Sach’s book…

          Yes, my dream some day (I say some day, because currently I’m focused on my second book…maybe that’s too narrow a vision for me?) is to have a symposium (I think some people call them salons) in my home, where people of all walks of life come to discuss issues, with the purpose of “solving” them where we are. How do we “do” something from where we sit? What issues do we value, and how do we begin changing the world? Your idea is similar. So wonderful. Great minds think alike, don’t you think? 🙂

          • Cherie
            Sep 05, 2011

            Glad to know there are like-minded people out there. That is one of my biggest problems with the Church. Talk about so-called personal (i.e., sexual) sins, and they’re all over them. Talk about the sins of greed and gluttony and global problems, the same people seem to disappear – or call you names.

  2. clare
    Sep 04, 2011

    I was very shocked at this tendency in myself when I was listening to the news in London many years ago. The announcement began with “300 people are confirmed dead…” I was hardly moved as I envisaged the sentence continuing with the name of some war torn area of the world. But then the sentence was completed with, “in a fire in King’s Cross station” I gasped in horror and sympathy and distress. It was so stark that I immediately asked myself, what was different. Why had I hardly blinked over what I had presumed was a faraway place and why was I virtually in tears over people I still didn’t know who were down the road?

    I think part of it is genuine fatigue with the vastness of numbers and the endlessness of violence, poverty and suffering in other parts of the world and the seeming impossibility of ending it all. But also I think we cannot envisage these people’s lives or equate them to our own. When the BBC series, “The Holocaust” was aired in Germany in the 1970s what struck the older viewers who had lived through the war was that the Jewish families looked just like they did. Had homes and family lives like they did. They had been so dehumanized through propaganda that many people did not envisage people like themselves suffering. I think George Carlin’s proposition for world peace through personal introduction is what we need. We need more simple documentaries about the daily lives of people from around the world to help us all relate, appreciate and understand each other more and see how we are more alike than different..
    Even between the United States and Mexico there is so much fear and so little understanding. Friends of mine, who also live on a boat in Mexico, came across a family stranded without gas on a lonely stretch of desert road. They offered to drive the teenage son to a gas station to pick up some more. The family pulled out a small empty water bottle for him to fill and they set off with the boy sitting frozen in fear on the back seat. My friends filled two large water bottles with more gas and they returned to fill the car. The Mexican mother rushed the other children into the car and kept the door closed as soon as my friends returned. When my friend asked a local about this strange behavior she was told that the family would have been afraid that they were missionaries about to kidnap their children (despite all the obvious acts of kindness by my friends). Isn’t it sad; all of us sitting either side of the border all feeling afraid of each other when the vast majority of us just want to bring up our children in happiness and safety with good food and clothing and a roof over their heads.

    • Elissa
      Sep 05, 2011

      “World peace through personal introduction” sounds marvelous to me. And yes, I think fear drives a lot of our behavior, which is terribly sad…and isolating. Thanks for these lovely examples, Clare!

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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