Recent Young Adult Blog Posts
At this summer’s General Assembly, UUCSJ is excited to offer our third annual stipended leadership opportunity to alumni of our programs and related justice and leadership initiatives to support their engagement in social justice education, action, and outreach at GA....
We listen so deeply to the stories of others that we begin to know their pain. To open ourselves to that which we know will be painful is an act of strength.
UUCSJ programs often bring participants into settings where the effects of systemic injustice are very plain to see. Sometimes, in these intense encounters, it’s hard to know what to do with our feelings.
Any time we find ourselves face-to-face with a person who is suffering we feel a powerful sympathy, and usually an immediate urge to do something to make things better. When the suffering is clearly caused by injustice, we quickly experience a whole range of other feelings: outrage and anger, shock and bewilderment, guilt and uneasiness, and sometimes a profound helplessness. For some of us, witnessing injustice will trigger memories and even trauma from injustices we ourselves have previously experienced. It’s important to pay attention to our emotions and the directions they can lead us.
- Will we shut down in the face of our own discomfort, and turn away from what we witness?
- Will we impulsively start up a project — take immediate action — telling ourselves we are helping, though we know little about the complexities on the ground?
- Will we simply return to familiar turf, feeling somehow elevated by the compassion we feel?
- For those of us who have our own trauma, how will we attend to our self-care?
- For those of us who live primarily a life a privilege, will we be motivated to look at our own actions and lifestyles, and seek a path to change and action we can sustain over time?
Read the following excerpt from the book Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
Click here to read the excerpt
“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused [when we witness suffering], the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do—but who is that “we”?—and nothing “they” can do either—and who are “they”?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.
And it is not necessarily better to be moved. Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse. (Recall the canonical example of the Auschwitz commandant returning home in the evening, embracing his wife and children, and sitting at the piano to play some Schubert before dinner.) People don’t become inured to what they are shown—if that’s the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.
The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration. But if we consider what emotions would be desirable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy…. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response.
To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine— be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark…
Images [of suffering] cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers… Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?”
Susan Sontag’s book explores the ethics of viewing the suffering of others, especially through film and photography. She engages the questions of whether such viewing can be justified because it mobilizes action in the viewer; or cannot be justified because effective action often seems impossible, and thus the viewing becomes voyeuristic.
When we travel into countries and communities in which people suffer the direct and harsh effects of poverty, illness, racism, and unjust governmental policies, some of the same questions can be asked as those Sontag poses in this excerpt.
Think about the following question after reading the passage above. If you feel compelled, jot down a few notes:
- How do you respond to Sontag’s critique of sympathy? Why?
The White-Savior Industrial Complex
In early 2012, social media exploded briefly with the video-based campaign called Kony 2012, an attempt to involve Americans and others in the effort to capture and prosecute the Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony.
For a sobering reflection on how such “helpers” can be seen from the perspective of those in the Global South, read The White-Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American author.
Think about the following questions after reading the article. If you feel compelled, jot down a few notes:
- What feelings arose for you as you were reading?
- Have you ever experienced the impulse to jump in and help in a situation without learning the background story? If you gave in to that impulse, what was the result?
Closing Words: The Real Work
The Real Work by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.