In December 2017, the fires in Ventura, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego, California, were still burning when the vast majority of news channels and social media had moved on.
The Thomas Fire — the fourth largest California fire in modern history, scorching over 240,000 acres according to the Los Angeles Times — was only one of a multitude of large-scale tragedies that have severely impacted Americans this year. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the fires in Sonoma County and Napa Valley; and the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada, Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, affected millions of lives.
But as many families and communities are still dealing with the life-changing aftermath of these tragedies, there are others, mainly those not directly affected, who stay on one tragedy just long enough to pause and show sympathy — before cycling through to the next.
While it’s possible our responses to mass tragedies are short lived because of our shorter attention spans and constant media exposure, there seems to be something more happening beneath the surface. The cascade of tragedies in America and across the world can leave us with a pervasive sense of helplessness, anxiety, and fear of more tragedy and violence. Often, we stay frozen, separate from others, even numb.
When large-scale tragedies occur, how can we respond in ways that help alleviate suffering in the world for the long term while also ensuring we don’t burn out, or worse, get ourselves or our families caught in the crossfires of major threats? When faced with terror and real danger, is it possible to balance our own needs with following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and to care for those who are suffering?
Related Article: On the tragic loss of a son and living through grief and mourning.
In the fall of 2015, a photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, went viral. He had drowned as he and his family fled the Syrian War, and was found lying face down on a sandy beach in Turkey. Because of his photo, many across the world were woken up to the Syrian refugee crisis. Paul Slovic, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Oregon, researched the impact of this photo and published his results in a study called, “Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters.” In Vox magazine, he explained it further.
“People suddenly started to care about the Syrian war and the refugees, in ways that the statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths had not led them to pay attention to,” he said. “Then we were able to track that, and that lasted roughly a month … These dramatic stories of individuals or photographs give us a window of opportunity where we’re suddenly awake and not numbed, and we want to do something.”
“The more people we’re confronted with, the less responsive we tend to be to their suffering.”
—ROSS OAKES MUELLER, PH.D.
Slovic found that when we’re faced with massive numbers of people suffering, it becomes hard for us to empathize with victims. Our common response to widespread suffering is therefore informed by what he calls “psychic numbing.” This means, “As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases.”
Ross Oakes Mueller, Ph.D., PLNU professor of psychology, agrees. “We actually are the most responsive when we see one individual suffering, and paradoxically (and horribly), the more people we’re confronted with, the less responsive we tend to be to their suffering,” he said.
In Oakes Mueller’s classes, he discusses similar ideas, including Daniel Baston’s empathy-altruism hypothesis. This theory distinguishes between being empathic, tuning into someone’s emotions to help them, versus what Baston calls “distress at another’s distress,” which is what happens when we’re made anxious, upset, or uncomfortable from another person’s suffering.
“Numbing seems to occur more when another is distressed by someone’s distress, when we’re less empathically attuned in the moment,” Oakes Mueller said. “In that case, we tend to move away from the person instead of moving toward them to relieve their suffering.”
Another key influence on our responses is the anxiety that instances of tragedy and suffering evoke, reminding us of our mortality. As a result, we may feel a strong need to protect our loved ones and ourselves. For example, after the Sutherland Springs church shooting in Texas, some churches across the country decided to invest in armed guards to protect their entrances. They didn’t want to appear vulnerable or an easy target to active shooters looking for innocent victims.
According to Oakes Mueller, this type of response to tragedy is explained well by Triune Ethics Theory, formulated by Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Notre Dame. In her research, Narvaez has found that the moral decisions we make are related to how our brains function.
Our reptilian brain, which we share with other species, is responsible for what Narvaez calls the ethics of security. This ethic says “I need to protect my family, my in-group, and myself,” explained Oakes Mueller.
“When I’m afraid or angry, what I’ll tend to do is think that the ‘right’ or ‘good’ thing to do is that which protects my in-group. In other words, this is the ethic in our brain that asks, ‘Who is my neighbor? Which people should I watch out for?’ It isn’t the part of the brain that gets activated by Jesus’ response, which is that everyone is my neighbor.”
The second ethic, the ethic of engagement, is triggered by the part of the brain that’s responsible for forming attachment relationships, especially with our in-groups. This part of the brain controls limbic attunement, our ability to sense others’ emotions and respond to them, and evokes feelings of empathy, among many other functions.
However, it is the third ethic, the ethic of imagination, that enables us to transcend our gut reactions, our inclination to either fight or flee, and our need for security. This ethic is based in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for planning, problem solving, and critical thinking.
“This is the part of our brain that tells stories, that can imagine our in-group circle as more than just those whom we see everyday, that can expand our in-group to Kenya and aboriginal Australia. It is the part of the brain that enables me to believe that people there can be my neighbors even though I’ve never met them before,” said Oakes Mueller. “This ethic of imagination enables us to respond to Jesus’ command to love everyone as neighbor.”
When the ethic of imagination is fused with the ethic of engagement, we are able to respond in accordance with Christ’s calling. But this requires us to move
beyond our initial, reptilian response.
“The challenge is that, due to the nature of the brain, the reptilian ethic of security tends to have a lower threshold of activation — all things being equal, it tends to trump the other ones,” said Oakes Mueller. “It is much easier to trigger and enhance fear than to trigger and enhance compassion. And it requires very little active awareness.”
As Christians, we join many religious groups and individuals across the world who seek to overcome the fear and anxiety created by our reptilian brain by reaching outside of ourselves to love others, and help alleviate their pain and suffering.
Responding to God’s Call
Charley Hardison (83) and his wife and children moved to Iraq in March 2015. They lived only 50 miles from Mosul, one of the declared headquarters of ISIS. “On certain quiet days, you could hear the bombing in the distance,” he said.
A year earlier, they were living in San Diego and waiting for God to lead them when they felt a pull toward the Middle East. During a spring break visit to Iraq in 2014, they received confirmation after meeting people there — this was where God was calling them. Just 40 days after they came back to the U.S. from this trip, ISIS had invaded the country. Even so, they continued with their plans to move to Iraq.
“There was a sea of tents. More were coming from the occupied part of Iraq that ISIS took over.”
—CHARLEY HARDISON (83)
“It’s not a head knowledge,” he said. “It’s a heart knowledge, knowing in your spirit that that’s where you should be. Some call it a calling, but for me it was more like a peace that’s more than a mental, analytical, or rational thing. It overcomes fear and anxiety.”
One of Hardison’s hardest experiences was his interaction with close friends and family before leaving for Iraq. Many were bewildered as to why he and his wife would take their children to such an unsafe place for Christians to live.
“We knew this was where we should be, but we got so many comments from people, because of their fear. That made it hard,” he said. “It was so frequent, you almost had to politely ignore them. At that point, we knew that the voice of God had to be louder than the voice of people.”
Hardison and his family lived in the city of Dohuk. They went as missionaries. While his wife homeschooled their children, Hardison worked at a Samaritan’s Purse clinic as a medical technical consultant and assistant. There, he served around 40,000 refugees who had experienced genocide from ISIS.
“There was a sea of tents. You could look out and see all of them,” he explained. “More were coming from the occupied part of Iraq that ISIS took over, mainly near a village called Shingal, where it was horrific. Refugees had to climb up a mountain and ISIS was chasing them. They were up there for days without food and water. There was a lot of loss.”
Many had been kidnapped and forced into fighting. They came to the clinic traumatized and sick. Part of Hardison’s job was to give them medication to heal physically, but it was mostly stress that affected their health. His team worked to alleviate this stress as much as possible.
“One of our methods of coping with difficult things that happened or tension, as well as in other situations in life, was getting in a group of people that really felt the presence of God. Because He loves you so much that He’s going to tell you if you shouldn’t be there. That’s my viewpoint.”
When they did leave almost two years later, it wasn’t because they were in a dangerous local situation. It was because his children began having internal, emotional struggles. “Because of a lack of social interaction, my son began experiencing depression. And that was when God said, ‘Now, look. Look at your family. This is what I care about, too.’”
It wasn’t easy to stop what he was doing, and Hardison wrestled with God for a time over what to do. “You think you see it one way, all the work that needs to be done, but in some ways you have to pull back and say, ‘The work will always be here, but your son will not.’ So that’s when things shifted.”
Practical Ways of Compassionate Action
When following God’s call in response to tragedy is overwhelming, when it is terrifying, Hardison tells others to look to Psalm 91, which has helped in his experiences.
“There are times when things are too big, too fearful. My response is to sit in God’s lap, like David. There are times when things are way beyond us, like the fires, shootings, and these huge tragedies. But when we are centered back in God, reminding ourselves of who He is and who we are, it doesn’t answer all the why questions, but it gives you peace.”
Ron Benefiel, Ph.D., professor of sociology and Christian ministry, agrees that we are better able to serve others when we begin with prayer, and especially when we are gathered together in prayer. He shared that in the last chapters of Compassion, written by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeil, and Douglas Morrison, the authors write about patience and corporate prayer as a necessary precondition of obedient Christian social action. “It is in community that we are able to begin to meaningfully engage some of the suffering in our world,” he said. “And it is in prayer together that we are able to discern God’s leading as we consider how to respond to suffering.”
According to Benefiel, when we’re on our own and confronted with overwhelming tragedy, we quite naturally can become angry or numb. This can result in withdrawal or wondering where God is in the midst of such suffering. With others, however, we are able to practice responding to suffering not with our reptilian ethic of security, but with our ethic of imagination.
In Oakes Mueller’s senior capstone course, he discusses practical ways to habitually engage with others and respond with empathy.
“Instead of fusing with my emotions [i.e. I am scared] and compulsively acting on my fear, or my anger, or my disgust, or my desire to distance, or my distress, I can become aware of it [i.e. I am feeling scared] and choose how I want to respond. All of these end up being practices that increase our ability to move from seeing a person or situation as a threat to seeing it as an opportunity to engage and show compassion for the other,” he said.
Of course, responses of compassionate action vary. In some cases, we may sense that we are led to go out from our participation in community to act individually in response to friends or neighbors in need. In other situations, we may join with others in responding locally, nationally, or globally through missions or non-profit organizations as donors or volunteers.
“Part of the calling of our faith is that we’re not doing this in isolation, but we do it in community. We work together,” said Oakes Mueller. “There are ways, especially in contemporary society, in which we can act with compassion without fear of facing some of the more immediate dangers faced in other parts of the world. But Jesus’ call again and again does challenge the instincts of our reptilian brain. There is a legitimate push for us to move beyond such responses.”
If we are to respond to the suffering of others in accordance with the call and life of Jesus, we must put aside our own instincts to protect ourselves and our in-group, and move toward those in need with compassion, empathy, and action, and within community.
“I think that’s one of the most powerful messages in the gospel,” said Oakes Mueller. “Over and over again confronting people who are looking to find scapegoats in the other, who prioritize the in-group versus the out-group, who hold on to signs of security, whether that be money or power or influence — Jesus’ constant push for us to release those things.”