Thursday, July 27, 2017

It's ok to get 'distracted' by other people's pain

"Don't get distracted!"

I keep seeing posts with this dire warning popping up in my social media feeds. Whatever you're currently paying attention to, these posts assert, is the wrong thing to be paying attention to. It's a distraction, a carefully planned ploy to cover up some other form of foul play. You need to focus on the *real* issue here, which is...well, whatever the person posting has decided, for that day, is the real issue, I suppose.

Of course, social media being what it is, there is a tendency to get caught up in a sort of "outrage of the moment" mentality, which perhaps doesn't lend itself well to the sort of consistent work that bears justice fruit. On the other hand, humans are, in fact, capable of caring about more than one thing at once.

But what's been bothering me about these posts lately is that they seem to me to essentially be criticisms of empathy. The term "distraction" is used to dismiss a reaction to the pain of others.

And I just think it's ok to get "distracted" by other people's pain.

The post that finally made me roll my (literal) eyes, roll up my (figurative) sleeves, and write this ( blog post was an assertion that people reacting to the Senate continuing debate on health care without an actual health care bill on the table were getting distracted from the "real" issue, which apparently had to do with consumer protections being voted on by the House.

But of course, for me, the Affordable Care Act isn't a "distraction" -- it's the difference between me being able to access care for my mental illness, and me not being able to do so. But if you're not someone who has to rely on the ACA for health insurance, I suppose it's easy to view it as a "distraction" from the "real" issue.

It's easy for cisgender folks to see tweets from the President demonizing and vilifying transgender folks as a "distraction." It's easy for me, who never really fit in as a Cub Scout and never made it past Weeblos, to see some news item about the Boy Scouts as a distraction.

It's easy to dismiss other people's pain. But what I want, what I hope for, what I pray for the grace and strength to work for, is a more empathetic world, more empathetic communities, where we do not so easily dismiss each other's pain.

I once heard the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who serves as Executive Minister of Justice & Wellness Ministries for the United Church of Christ, give a sermon at the Wild Goose Festival. She preached on John 9. I'll never forget one line from her sermon: "Oh, how I wish we could be more like Jesus," she said, "who never debated people's pain in the third person."

What I would like to see is a more empathetic world. A world in which we do not "debate people's pain in the third person." And in that world, it is ok -- in fact, it is required -- to allow ourselves to be distracted by each other's pain.

I very much doubt that we are the victims of some sort of mastermind distraction plot crafted by a band of media savvy goons. Plain old meanness and lack of empathy, in a system already designed to shore up existent power relations, will do nicely as an explanatory framework, I think. And if I'm right about that, then we need not spend our time lambasting the attention paid to the latest meanness, the latest use of violent language to shore up violent power.

In such a system as this, which thrives off of divisions and isolation, it is good and right to allow ourselves to be distracted by people's pain.

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