What Makes People Care.
“This current crisis in Somalia is on a different order of magnitude than the typical calamity, if there is such a thing. Tens of thousands of people have already died, and as many as 750,000 could soon starve to death, the United Nations says, the equivalent of the entire populations of Miami and Pittsburgh.” -Jeffrey Gettleman
The first person account from Jeffrey Gettleman in today’s New York Times hit me hard this morning as I was sitting on the bus. These numbers are shocking- but totally incomprehensible. How can we conjure up what 750,000 deaths means? Can our brains even perceive a difference in the 10,000s who have already died and the 750,000 who may die?
The Pittsburgh/Miami analogy helps communicate scale and make it more relatable, but the numbers still make it feel distant, unreal and impersonal. Donations reveal this- only $5 million has been donated to Save the Children for Somalia in the past ten months of the crisis- less than those given in the first days of the Japanese earthquake.
So why don’t people care?
The presence of al-Shebab has made it extremely difficult for organizations to work on the ground- many are working remotely from Nairobi. Covering the famine has not been easy because individual stories are inaccessible. Gettleman had to rely on his individual experienceof the horror to personalize it.
I was involved in an experiment during my early cash strapped college years. I laid in an MRI machine for two hours while images were flashed in front of me in fast sequences. I laid motionless and watched images of war, destruction, suffering and grief which transitioned to images of human connection- a mother kissing her child, lovers embracing, people helping each other. I began crying almost immediately and an hour into the study I was completely overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted.
The research was about mirror neurons- collections of cells in our brains which fire when we see other humans (or animals) experiencing an emotion that make us feel the same emotion.
“When we see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons help us to read his or her facial expression and actually make us feel the pain of the other person,” says Marco Lacoboni, author of Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others
Our brains recreate the distress we see in front of us.
That’s why stories are so important. There is nothing about statistics that make us feel what another person is feeling.
Without individual stories to help us recognize our common humanity, the nightmare of this famine will continue to come true. Each individual in that 3/4 million death projection is a person with their own unique life story- their own passions, hobbies, skills and dreams. Without stories to help us imagine who people are and what they have gone through, we unconsciously strip those 750,000 people of the same complexity and depth that we grant ourselves and our neighbors. We dehumanize them without even realizing it.
It was a story about of a father whose daughter had just died that really made me feel emotionally the gravity of situation.
“It is important to remember that however plagued Somalia is, however routine conflict, drought and disease have become, however many Somalis have already needlessly died, Somalis are not somehow wired differently from the rest of us. They are not numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. I’ll never forget the expression on Mr. Kufow’s face as he stumbled out of Benadir Hospital into the penetrating sunshine with his lifeless little girl in his arms. He may not have been weeping openly. But he looked as if he could barely breathe.”
Here’s what you can do:
Use your creativity to make a statement and take action. We’ll be hosting a dinner party to raise money.
Create your own fundraising campaign through the IRC.
Spread the word.
Share whatever stories you come across (post them in the comments section).
Let’s stand up together and do something. Because every human life is valuable.