Human compassion is a funny thing. I have tremendous compassion and empathy for folks that I know. Strangers or people who are far away do not touch me in the same way. I do not think I am unusual in this respect.
The “Baby Jessica” phenomenon is a good example of what I am talking about. In 1987, 18 month old Jessica McClure fell down a well in her home’s yard, and was stuck 22 feet below the ground. For 56 hours, the entire world was convulsed with sympathy for this one small, helpless baby girl. The 24-hour media circus, led by then-fledgling cable network CNN, was avidly watched by millions.
How many other innocent babies died during that two day period? Many, I would guess. According to World Hunger, approximately 40,000 people were dying per day from starvation alone in 1992, 5 years after the Baby Jessica events. That number is probably fairly close. Why then did we respond so much to Jessica, and we can turn our faces away from the 40,000 others who are dying as well?
Because we knew her name. Once we heard about Jessica’s plight, she was real to us. Our hearts went out to her. We felt her pain, loneliness, fear and grief when she was lost in that well.
The others are simply nameless, faceless strangers.
It would seem that our capacity for empathy and compassion is limited. Perhaps in the process of evolving as a species we can learn to have compassion and empathy for everyone. But perhaps as well, it is enough for us to simply practice compassion for those in our own lives.