I imbibe a bit of news--print or television--every day. I hate BIG NEWS.
At the moment, hurricane Ike is grinding up through Houston and the news grinds on. Winds are 90 miles-per-hour, as opposed to the 95 miles per hour they were three hours ago. Look! Property damage from a hurricane! Imagine! In another hour they will replay all that and show another car with a tree on it or, if we are lucky, a tree with a car in it. Another news person will stand out in the tempest and marvel that so many Houston residents did not have the sense to leave the city. Ah, irony.
Am I heartless? Maybe I am, according to current social norms. But so are you.
Here is what I mean. Imagine one of your relatives who tried to get out of Houston, but the car would not start. Then a tree fell on the house, injuring a family member and destroying the house. Imagine the calls from other relatives. Trying to get information on hospitalization and health status. Your anguish and sadness would be substantial.
Now multiply that anguish and sadness by 1,000. Is it possible?
Shouldn't you feel mega-anguish for the people of Houston? How can you eat or sleep? How can you think about going to the grocery store? We grieve for months when a member of the family dies. Shouldn't you grieve in this way for each person who died due to hurricane Ike?
Shouldn't you grieve every day for all the children around the world who died due to dehydration caused by impure drinking water? Shouldn't this grief build and build until it destroys you?
Adam Smith said,
If [a person] was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.*
We do not have the capacity to feel adequate sorrow for all of the world's tragedies. If you tried to do so, you would die from the stress of extreme grief within one unproductive year of life.
So I feel my inadequate sorrow for Houston's tragedy. I'll ask dad if he has heard from my cousins living in Houston. And I'll sigh and resign myself to a creepingly slow, uninteresting day or two of "news."
*Note: Smith's full argument is more textured and extensive than this. And his points extend not only to the dimensions of humanity's indifference, but also to humanity's altruism.