Have you ever felt simply overwhelmed by the needs in the world that you're exposed to? Maybe you’ve watched some documentary about horrific suffering in a country halfway around the world and felt helpless to change it. Or maybe you’ve wondered if you’re too insensitive to care.
In one of the few magazines I still read, an ad regularly appears featuring small children with terrible facial deformities, cleft palates, mangled mouths, twisted noses. I can hardly stand the gruesome pictures. I hurry past that ad every time.
Do I lack compassion? Is there anything I could do for them? Even if I donated money, the ad wouldn't go away because the problem wouldn't disappear.
Last week, I was driving home after work. Ahead, two teenage boys were skateboarding down the middle of the road. On the sidewalk to my right, two other smaller boys were walking. As I slowed, one skateboarder veered off to my left, the other one plunged toward the sidewalk, and toward the boys. As I passed, I heard a loud thwap. I looked. The skateboarder had used his forward momentum to collide with one of the boys on the sidewalk, and he now had him in a headlock, yanking him right and left.
I braked instinctively, but there was another car behind me. I couldn't stop abruptly. At the stop sign, I turned and looked back, trying to make sense of the scene. No one was getting involved. I wondered if it was playful, but that collision had sounded too loud, that thrashing seemed too violent. I turned the corner and they disappeared behind a building.
Do I lack compassion? Is there anything I could have done? It wouldn't be the first time I passed someone in distress.
I've argued that if you want to know a person's character, let them drive you somewhere. You'll hear how they respond to drivers who cut them off, see how they angle for lane position, or perhaps drive cautiously. If you pay attention, you'll see the inner person. Or at least, there's a better chance they won't have their guard up.
Why am I saying this? Well, the insulation we feel in the car allows us to snub other drivers without having to face them. It allows drivers to respond verbally to others' inconsiderate driving. Conversely, good-natured people will be unfazed by these gestures, and they will express few themselves.
In media ecology terms, cars are extensions of our bodies, but they could also be seen as expressions of our personalities. Magazines have likened various car models and colors to various personalities, but I'm suggesting that our inner person manifests itself in the way we drive our cars. When we're face to face with someone, we suppress these urges, but the isolation of the car relieves that outside pressure. That's when the inner person begins to show.
So, when I drove by the attack in progress, or when I drive by stranded drivers, it probably reveals my own self-centeredness, or fear. I have a schedule to keep. Or I imagine that perhaps it's a set up, and they're looking for trouble. I should just mind my own business.
Okay, back to the documentaries about suffering and my habit to keep driving. Television and cars are doing different things in those scenarios. Those documentaries attempt to "raise awareness," but more honestly, they attempt to bring about compassionate action. They're looking to increase compassion.
Cars, meanwhile, actually distance me from suffering, allowing me to discard people by defacing them. I'm isolated within my car for one, but I'm also able to create distance with just a little tap on the gas. Thus, there's no time for compassion to rise at all. Compassion lies dormant. If it rises at all, responding a much higher threshold because I have to turn around. Instead, I can just drive until something else distracts me and the compassion dissipates. Why do homeless people stand at intersections and not along the highways? Intersections increase compassion and lower the threshold required for response.
A medium like television exposes viewers to horrific injustices around the world. It deepens our compassion, deepens our sensitivity. This altruism is how the Press advocates for its existence. It "raises awareness." But at the same time, television keeps us insulated and uninvolved, essentially unable to act. Of course, we can act if we choose to. We might call a number, go to a website, donate money, or even get on a plane, but we would not use the medium of television to do it. The medium that incurs compassion is not the same medium by which I would respond. Compassion and action are divorced, separated into different media. And like the recurring magazine ad, my action doesn’t effect visible change for me. The TV continues to tell me something is wrong.
Meanwhile, cars increase our power to act. But they divorce the action from compassion, or at least require a threshold of compassion so high that the two are virtually divorced. It's just like wearing gloves. Sensitivity is decreased, but power can be increased.
This is the strange paradox technology creates between power and compassion. Our technologies empower us, but they also distance us from feeling compassion. Or they heighten our sensitivity, but they do not empower us to act. They arouse us but leave us impotent, or they empower us but leave us numb.