Right after I graduated from college, I taught ESL at a language school in Cambridge, MA. I didn’t have any training, just private students. It paid well, and basically it was just conversation.
This was 1975 or so. I had one student who was a refugee from the war in Lebanon. She had a pretty name, but I won’t reveal it here. Her English was already quite good, and my help polished it. She had been a teacher. Her first truly complete statement in English, to me, was: “The letters came back from my mother and sister. Everyone is dead.” Then she burst into tears. At the end of our lessons, she gave me the best lip balm I have ever seen or used. It was French, and perfectly delicious and moisturizing.
Of course I don’t know what happened to her.
This is by way of saying that not all human atrocities have affected me equally. When I have known someone directly affected, I’ve been the most upset. The war in Viet Nam of course is the trauma that keeps on giving. I did not know anyone killed, but in the past forty years I’ve known—and taught—many veterans, and known their children too, some of whom have been directly affected by Agent Orange, some by PTSD. The same is also unfortunately true for this country’s later wars.
I’ve had friends whose families were directly harmed by events as diverse as the round-up of the “disappeared” in Argentina’s dirty war to Pancho Villa’s raids and rapes in northern Mexico. These things will always stand out for me.
When something bad happens in a classroom, I can’t help but care more. When something happens in the city I was born in it hits harder—the specifics in the universal.
I don’t want to change this. It may not be the most enlightened stance, but I’m no saint. I often think that the assassinations, riots, and killings of the 1960’s and early 1970’s affected me more than anything else because they were a fall from grace. Maybe contrary to my family’s utopian socialist beliefs the world wasn’t improving. And there is no idealism like that of adolescence, and no loss as bad as when that first innocence is shattered.
In today’s world, I screen myself from news that, with its sensationalism, tells me what to worry about, what to fear, what to hate. I don’t want to be directed to outrage at the atrocious or told why I should or should not be upset about something.
I don’t know about other people, but for me compassion is engendered through specifics. And I also refuse to be upset and outraged all the time. There is no particular rationale for this—I’m not trying to save the world, or myself. I’m just maintaining a modicum of freedom.