Once Burned

Stillness tends to play catch up in my life, usually lurking behind in the wake of the day’s mundane chaos. It isn’t often that a quiet moment forcibly seizes me, ramming other thoughts over the edge. But that happened once tonight, right in the midst of my daily grind.

The catalyst was a friend’s writings. He invokes helplessness and confusion over the plight of the Japanese people, besought as they are with biblical misfortune just short of a plague. In his post he says “Humans just can’t focus on that many things”. Indeed I had a professor in college speculate that people cannot emotionally distinguish between different levels of genocide. Even in the most empathetic corner of our minds, ten-thousand senseless deaths is no different than one-hundred million. We lack the tools to comprehend even ten-thousand murders. Anything larger is beyond the breadth of our emotional skill, and simply academic.

This notion flutters in and out of favor with me. Surely larger tragedies stumble across intellectual thresholds, allowing us convenient shorthand to appreciate the magnitude of our loss. The combatants that fought World War I are called “The Lost Generation” because it was an entire period of human civilization suddenly without men, a cultural marker cut down by the invention of the machine gun. This is an awful truth, and one easily invoked by the heart. But still, when I’m honest with myself, the staggering, abstract sadness of “The Lost Generation” is its own tragedy. I cannot in good faith pretend it links emotionally to the deaths of thirty-seven million people. The cold, simple fact finds no purchase on that which makes me human, slipping instead just off its surface.

This shameless inadequacy is a gift. I, like most people, operate my heart in the context of the now. I spend my days feeling out the world based on emotional immediacy. I spend little to no time each day thinking about events like the Holocaust, instead being occupied fully by momentary pride when my infant daughter burps over my shoulder. This allows me to work, play, and breathe in and out. As such, I can be a functional, powerful, and broken person that cannot fully feel the full breadth of his soul in anything but quiet, empty moments.

And like I said, this is a gift. But it is much like the gift of pain, that reviled sensation that helps us to fear the fire. We defer any horror greater than the measure of our person until we are best equipped to understand our own inadequacy and helplessness. It’s a deep pinprick, and a strong incentive to keep busy.

So here I sit, my abrupt moment of silence receding. I find myself casting out toward the events overseas. I am desperate to understand and to feel real sadness for these strangers, humiliated and sickened when I find that I fall short. My mind is already returning to my beloved family and petty complaints. It is frustrating. It makes me want more.

But even as I recoil back into the shelter of my day to day, I am torn. As much as I want some semblance of understanding and humanity in the face of such a tragedy, part of me fears the moment that it will loop back around, most likely finding me alone in bed. My hand is stretched out toward my brief glimmer of understanding and empathy, finding its warmth at a distance. But a child once burned, by nature, fears the fire.

I can’t help but simply be grateful for what I have.