The morning news was playing on the shelter’s Day Room television when I arrived at work at 7:45. I got organized in my office and then went back into the bigger room to connect with overnight staff and observe the general scene. I watched as “Eddy” took in the news and then grabbed his backpack from the cubby storage. Our overnight guy explained that Eddy had to complete a number of job applications by the end of the day and come back with proof of doing so or he’d be given an exit date seven days hence. Eddy had whined about this non stop.
At about the same time in the living room of a home located in Glenburn, a bedroom community adjacent to Bangor, David S was hurrying his preparations so he could get to work on time. He had a hot cup of coffee on the magazine table, and he was using a mirror to gauge his progress with tying his tie. His television was set to the same channel as the shelter’s tv, and so the same story was being narrated in Glenburn. Twenty minutes later, as David was approaching the bank parking lot, he would have been unable to tell anyone much about that story. He would not have been able to tell the number lost or missing, who they were, where the ship had set sail, or any of the bigger story that lay behind the event.
The main story on the news that morning was the sinking of a ship carrying multinational “migrants” who were fleeing Libya and other, adjoining countries, especially Eritrea. Over the course of the next two days a variety of news agencies including the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN covered the story in increasing depths of detail. The number of people killed or missing went from 200 souls to 900, and the back stories painted pictures of extended loss and suffering. People had competed for a space on the ship by paying many times more their share of personal wealth than do tourists who board cruise ships. The space that money purchased was no cabin or berth, but room on the deck barely enough to hold them. And the pain and anguish each person had experienced, suffering that drove them to this desperate act, was violent and crippling. Women had been beaten and raped, children had been killed, men had been crippled, and families had been ripped apart.
Who and what have we become? Eddy felt he had been given a bad deal, both at birth and by the shelter staff, who were threatening him with eviction and just didn’t understand that things were depressingly conflicted for him. David just couldn’t be bothered to pay attention—he had a family to provide for and a tough, demanding boss to serve.
Distance is measured by the time it takes to travel from one place to another or the time it takes to communicate. We are all about communication now, and generally it’s instantaneous. We don’t have to imagine distant scenes of destruction and suffering—we can see it, pretty close to “in real time.” Maybe that is the issue—we don’t have to imagine. We generally don’t imagine. We don’t empathize. We don’t care. If it’s not happening to me and it’s not happening now than it’s not happening. And I won’t give it any thought tomorrow. And I won’t watch the news and make the connection with the stories in Portland and Lewiston about asylum seekers. David doesn’t think about the human beings drowning off the coast of Libya, and he doesn’t think about asylum seekers in Maine, and he doesn’t think about Eddy. Eddy? He could care less about a businessman named David.
Isn’t it sadly and maybe tragically ironic that we who have the ability to be more connected than ever before in the history of mankind are fundamentally not interested enough to care beyond our immediate circles of family and friends? We need to find a reason, even if it’s only based in survival, to actually care about people we don’t know who are sharing the same world.