Is our world broken? Not as long as there is empathy.

It’s been a few intense days. After sending my last newsletter I started to feel a bit sick. It didn’t worry me because I’ve been working a lot and I felt already that it was time to take a pause. Everything felt so heavy lately. The world news seems so depressive with a never ending pandemic and all the other challenges from racism to climate change and from a growing wealth gap to a growing plastic problem. When I got feedback from a friend on my newsletter saying ‘it’s quite heavy’, I wasn’t surprised. If you feel heavy, you write heavy.

But I’m also a realist. Things are never only bad. It’s just not always easy to keep up the mood when times are rough. 

I slowly started to feel sicker and realized I definitely got a flu. A sign of my body to stop and take rest. I decided to watch the documentary series ‘Broken’, shedding a light on consumer cultures and the impact of mass production. It’s also about power and behavior change, for example in the first episode about plastic and the devastating influence of the oil and gas industry on one side (power) and the alternative choices we can make as humans on the other (behavior change).

It’s a good reminder of how our behavior as human beings definitely makes a difference and at the same time doesn’t mean anything in the larger context of big corporations who keep doing what they’re doing. It’s the same with racism. Of course we should act when we witness racism happening in our society, but as long as there is still racism in our system, change on an individual level is like a drop in the ocean.

While my back was hurting more and more, I realized this was exactly what I’ve been struggling with the last few weeks. What difference do our individual efforts really make when the overall system is so hard to change? It feels so meaningless sometimes. What should I place emphasis on with Inclusive Journalism in that regard?

Blaming sick people for getting sick is a real thing

I would get the answer quickly because I tested positive for COVID-19 and had to immediately self-isolate. My housemate’s first question was if it was possible for me to move out? “Take a taxi to the beach and self-isolate over there? I don’t want to get sick”. Not sure if she realized that I’d possibly infect the taxi driver on the way and the hotel owners at the beach with the virus. Raising the rent for the necessary extra time I had to stay in her house because of my quarantaine and not willing to cut my fruit in bite size pieces because she was busy doing yoga, were just two more examples of her lack of empathy. She was so anxious that she could only think about herself. This is what fear does with us human beings.

And the behavior of my house mate suddenly shifted something in my brain. If even she – who I saw more as a friend and who regularly engages in spiritual activities where the goal should be to foster compassion for others –  can’t muster the empathy, there are probably many more people who can’t. I never really thought about that – silly me -, but blaming sick people for getting sick is a real thing.

I would normally start to overthink this, asking myself how it is possible that people act like this. But somehow because of my direct own experience with this situation I didn’t feel the urge to do that. Instead, I got a certain clarity: this is why our world is in its current state. We are driven by fear and we can’t empathize with one another. Big corporations and politicians are fearful of losing their power, human beings are fearful of losing their lives.

So, how do we break the cycle of fear? And what does this experience tell me in light of my work with Inclusive Journalism?

Five thoughts:

  1. Fear of death underlies most of our other fears. At least in Western societies. I just followed a six weeks course given by a death doula and I noticed how much I learned about life through discussing mortality and letting go of the taboo on death. In indiginous cultures, death is often a more natural part of life, with matching rituals to embrace our loss of life. It would be good to give more space in our lives to ancient knowledge about death and find better ways to deal with it. Or in other words, it’s time to decolonizing death. 
  2. Some people ask me if ‘inclusive’ is the right word to use because why focus on including people to a system that’s broken? Well, the system isn’t broken, it’s built this way. And we can change that. Sure, initiatives outside of the system are important as well, to show us how things can be done differently. But we have a responsibility to change what we’ve built. It asks from us an uncomfortable inward gaze and holding up a mirror to ourselves. And that’s not a soft approach, we really haven’t given that enough try yet.
  3. Not everyone has the same level of empathy. Don’t focus on people who are too fearful to be empathic. Focus on the people who are willing and capable to look critically at themselves in order to change their behavior. This is probably my biggest lesson from having COVID-19 at the moment: I realized I’m sometimes trying too hard to get people involved who don’t want to be involved. Or who aren’t ready or capable to be involved. Even if there are small signs of an unwillingness to change behavior or to make the world a little bit better, withdraw and don’t let it drain your energy.
  4. Don’t make things heavier than necessary. And don’t intellectualize. Life is quite simple. Racism exists, COVID-19 exists, climate change exists. And we can be a big part of the solution. As long as we become aware of our own fears and are able to help each other instead of competing with one another, we can move mountains. Even big corporations can be held responsible if we give our votes to the political parties who can make regulation to contain their power. Focus on your own behavior change but never forget that you’re part of a bigger system.
  5. The spiritual community is sick. I’m sorry to state it so clearly, but it’s true. I’ve been staying in Bali for over a year now, amongst a large community of Westerners who call themselves ‘spiritual’ and practice yoga, meditation, cacao ceremonies and ecstatic dance. Their approach to spirituality is so egocentric that they don’t even realize it themselves. This false idea of what a spiritual practice is, will eventually enlarge the lack of empathy for others. We’ve seen it happening around Black Lives Matter. We might sometimes think that the Western spiritual community is going to benefit the world, unfortunately the opposite is true. Decolonizing yoga and meditation is extremely important. 

Luckily, I don’t have severe symptoms of COVID. I feel sick, as if I’m coping with a tough flu, but I realize that the coronavirus isn’t the biggest problem we’re facing right now. The world seems broken sometimes but it’s actually easy to fix. Empathy is the answer. Starting with ourselves, today.