I’m happily typing on the laptop I feared wouldn’t have juice this morning, sipping coffee I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make if the power went out. The sun is out, the hatches have been un-battened and I’m feeling mighty grateful that we were spared the damage Michael has wreaked in other parts of the Southeast.
After all, Irma isn’t too distant a memory, and the boys still remember when we lost power and — gasp! — WiFi for four days and lost all the perishable food in the refrigerator, freezer and backup-freezer. Despite the inconvenience and expense, we were still very fortunate and still recall that others faced injuries, damages and weeks of challenges. And although the Flood of ’94 is actually a distant memory, I still recall boiling water for a month and seeing port-a-potties scattered around Mercer’s campus during a summer program for incoming freshmen. I also remember us talking to one another and helping one another.
I’ve got some time this morning — classes are canceled and roads have to stay clear — to sit and pontificate. What is it that causes us to rise to help our neighbors during disasters and holidays but to miss the everyday needs? Social media is already abuzz with photos of Good Samaritans with chain saws and pickup trucks, ready to help and pitch in. Folks aren’t just sitting back, expecting that someone else will handle everything. And some are there to help even before they’ve been asked. That’s the beauty of community and empathy.
Paul Bloom’s fascinating piece in The New Yorker, “The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy,” explores the limits of empathy. While it can move us to care about someone we’ve never met (a good thing, right?), empathy can be limited to those with whom we identify (excluding those farther remote, either in experience or in distance). Or empathy can move us to try to do something — anything — to help, even if it’s not the help actually needed (Bloom cites the example of thousands of unused stuffed animals sent to Newtown, Connecticut, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School). Bloom argues instead for consistent support of others based on reason, organization and thoughtful economic analysis. I’m no less a fan of caring about the experience of others, but I think Bloom may have a point.
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Don’t get me wrong: I’m loving the photos of neighbors with chain saws coming to each other’s aid. But intermittent community-minded service isn’t what is required in a city where we have such persistent poverty and other needs. We (I absolutely include myself in this) just need to be willing to show up to help one another more consistently and strategically. If we think of mental illness as a hurricane, illiteracy rates as a tornado and poverty as the flood of ’94, that may help us reconfigure our priorities and sense of urgency.
The social disasters are just as devastating as the natural disasters (perhaps more); we’ve just become more accustomed to their presence among us. And just as we had no hand in whether we kept power or lost trees during Hurricane Michael’s trip through town, children growing up in Macon’s poorest neighborhoods had no say in the circumstances they were born into.
Let me suggest that Macon needs both empathy and consistent, calculated opportunities to envision a better future for ourselves and all our neighbors. I’m so encouraged by all the conversations I’m hearing and actions I’m seeing to address our local challenges. Let’s be grateful we were spared worse damage in the natural disasters and continue to dig in on the economic ones.
Sarah Gerwig is a law professor and word enthusiast raising her two sons in Macon.