Inequality in Grief

Last Monday, April 15, 2019, I was shocked to turn on the news and hear that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Not only is it an especially beautiful structure, it is also my favorite cathedral, despite not having visited it. I have even built a cathedral in Minecraft based on it. All day long, I felt sick whenever I thought about it and the fire that was consuming it.

However, this puts me in a conflicted situation. Objectively, I believe that a person’s value is greater than that of a building. People have eternal souls but any physical thing is necessarily going to be destroyed eventually. Yet here I am mourning the loss of a building when people suffer and die all the time and I don’t feel the same sense of loss.

Let me say right now that I am not saying we should not mourn the damage done to Notre Dame. I felt the same way when Namdaemun, the Great South Gate of Seoul burned down in 2008. It is nonsensical to say that we should not grieve because there are possibly worse things happening in the world. That would be like never celebrating good things because there might be something better that could happen.

One problem is that human suffering is so common, it is easy to get inured to it. I’m sure if cathedrals burned down every week, we’d soon get used to it, unfortunately. Still, I find it disturbing that I don’t have the same amount of feeling for the tens of thousands of people who die every year from gun violence or opioid overdose. It’s true that I don’t know those people, but then again, I’ve never been to the Notre Dame cathedral either. Part of it is how much media coverage something gets, but that doesn’t seem like a good excuse either.

I’m also not saying that we need compelled to take the entirety of the world’s suffering on our shoulders. No one has the strength to do that and I don’t think it would be productive to do so. Still, there should be a way to better reconcile one’s beliefs with one actions.

The obvious solution is to do what we can in our own sphere of influence, but in today’s increasingly global world, what is that sphere and how much is enough? Yes, I should help the people in my community, but what about victims of the civil war in Syria or Yemen or kids stuck in the sex trade in southeast Asia or many other tragedies I could discover with a quick Internet search? It’s true that merely empathizing with people or feeling bad for their situation doesn’t always translate into action, but there is often something we can do.

The problem is that something covers the whole spectrum from nothing to everything. For some people, the problems of the world seem so big that they collapse into apathy. On the other extreme is what I call the Schindler Paradox: the more you do, the more you worry there was more you could have done. At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, after the title character has saved many Jews from destruction, he looks around and wonders how many more people he could have saved. As long as he still has any possessions left, then he could have done more.

So is there any hope in this situation? How can I reconcile my belief in the primacy of human beings with not empathizing more with those who are suffering and then, acting proportionately?

What do you think?