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The Tension of Responsibility

The Tension of Responsibility

Faced with recent events, we may easily understand the pangs of compassion, concern and confusion that are felt within the wake of such tragedies that befall mankind. News reporters speak of the urgency and fear felt by those closest to the situations. Televisions and computer monitors, like the panes of glass in a window, are all that seem to separate us from the victims of tragedy. Marshall McLuhan, the 1960s futurist, termed this “the global village,” the inevitable culmination of connection technology that would cause mankind to bear witness to all the goings-on of the planet.

It is at times like these, we unconsciously become aware of the unspoken truth: Once we have seen, we feel responsibility for the triumph of Truth in the matter. We do not celebrate the men and women who have ignored the horrors that passed in front of them, knowing them to be wrong and refusing to act through sheer lack of courage. This generation knows this truth far and above others through sheer connectedness. Human crisis and violation of rights meet underground masses when not addressed by public media. We do not truly hear the cries or see the pain of those in Haiti, Indonesia, Darfur, Uganda, Rwanda or China. Yet, when we hear of the events in these areas, we are driven to act, or, rather, feel some guilt for not acting on the compassion we feel. Do we sacrifice as much as we can? Do we truly conceive of the gravity of the situation? With contorted and confused souls, we sit, digitally watching from afar, trying to grapple with the suddenly juxtaposed emotions of helplessness and responsibility.

For thousands of years, mankind has cared only for those he could see, those he could provide for, or those he had direct contact with. Are our minds capable of understanding the sheer gravity of global depravity and ungoverned, natural tragedy? These victims are not part of my community. They are not one of my own. We might think, “if this were but a man who came to my door, a neighbor who needed taking in, I could do something.” But as fellow members of the human race, their pain resides in the collective subconscious of all who witness it. Whether McLuhan foresaw or understood the near unbearable weight of responsibility that comes with this act of global witnessing, I do not know. What I do know is that, a few times a year, we stare into the eyes of a refugee, a sick child, a displaced citizen, a victim, a person who has lost a son, a mother, their home, their livelihood, and we are called upon to respond.

If there is but one thing our primitive minds unceasingly ask and yet fail to grasp, it is the question of “Why?” Why did this happen? Why was this allowed? Why do people act this way? Why was I here instead of there? Why not me? We develop mythos. We try to explain. But stories and logic cannot free us from the cold, harsh grip of responsibility one feels when asking these questions or the momentary guilt we feel when we turn down an opportunity to give.

In a recent conversation with a coworker, we discussed the nature of global responsibility. What requires me to act besides image-induced guilt and emotional response? I might submit, in harsh, reasonable fact, you bear no responsibility for those outside your immediate and tangible control. However, we do not look through the annals of human history to make note of those who did what was required of them, but we define as heroes those who did what was needed when Fate handed them a subpoena.

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