Part 2: Whelmed
Last night I tried to dream a dream. It was a dream so terrible it was not to be believed. The walls of my Chico home lied in ruins all around me. The dust in the air was so thick each breath was like being waterboarded with sand. The sounds were a confusing blur between thunder rolls and overwhelming silence; the chaos was a lot more of a detonation in your stomach than a noise in your ears. Everything was grey and the footsteps fell like cannonballs upon mud pits. My heart beat madly within my ravenous lungs and all I could think of was finding my sister. I did not wonder if she had already made it outside, or if my mother or brother had perhaps grabbed her by then. None of the usual logical, linear thoughts really occurred to me at that point. Time seemed to freeze and slow down all at once; and yet it happened in an instant.
This is the scene I tried to make myself create but my privileged intellect can not even fathom it outside of the typical Hollywood home-invasion scenario. Perhaps an out of this place, “War of the Worlds” theme could have helped my fantasy along rather well… The problem is – even within the confines of my own inventive imagination – I could not form this dream into a cogent reality. It’s all still smoke and speculation. What it lacks is the human experience of complete soul-splicing terror and mind-numbing confusion that must accompany unspeakable mass violence of any kind on any level. I simply cannot empathize with it because I have never known it. With all the things that creep up and stress me out in my daily life, I can’t seem to develop the correct feelings to associate with this kind of trauma.
While relatively small things (like issues with co-workers, dealing with people who are less than friendly, never seeming to have enough money, feeling weighted down by the pressure to earn high letter grades, and the obsessive thinking patterns that escort unreciprocated romantic feelings) seem to serve their purpose in overwhelming me in lower-class California, the only response I can seem to illicit from myself on the issue of war and mass devastation of lives the world over is: whelmed. There doesn’t seem to be an “over” or “under” to preclude that “nearly-apathy” emotion that goes with the idea of starving and severely uncomfortable human children all over the world. You’d have more luck showing me still images of a beaten and bloody bunny rabbit than you would by putting yet another picture of a malnourished Ethiopian child in my face. Forgive my French here, but what the fuck? What is it and who I am that allows me to be so completely desensitized to the cruelty of human suffering?
The foreword by Robert Coles was what really hit me. It went so well alongside all the things I have read and experienced in high school and university courses related to “child development.” The psychological impact of violence, aggression, and fear on children are things that are widely discussed and disputed in the popular stream of domestic issues in America (London, xiii). Having grown up in an abusive and fear-driven household as young girl, I can relate in some ways to the fear factor that controls our lives at times. “Quick! Dad’s home! Run and hide!” Sometimes it can be hard to feel like we have any control over the way our lives turn out. You may feel completely helpless and small and have a total breakdown from this kind of mental turmoil. Looking at the situation from this standpoint, it can be easy to rationalize why we might take more emotional bounds for a non-human animal than we would for one of our own. Perhaps this is backed by the subconscious idea that we might be able to help this creature; that we might be able to reduce or end its affliction. Animal cruelty is just not something we are willing to tolerate in our “own backyard;” our tangible communities.
Conversely, it seems clear that we can’t help every starving or malnourished Nigerian child who happens to be scanned by Children’s International. That simply doesn’t make sense. I mean, clearly – 80¢ a day might not seem like a lot to you, but that’s almost $300 a year. I can’t even afford to buy organic, locally grown foods from the farmers’ market! let alone support some kid I don’t even know in a third-world country just because his or her parents decided to be sexually irresponsible and die from AIDs. Gosh…I can’t even believe someone would ask me for a contribution like that! I am soo stressed right now – I could really use a Starbucks. You want one?
(*Yes – insert highly trained ignor-op firing squad here.*)
But we aren’t even children anymore. Our homes are not being raided and pillaged by some foreign militia screaming vulgar sounding languages we don’t understand at us while our closest loved ones are being pulled by the hair and brought to their knees. Most of us have, or will someday have, the luxury of putting the parents we get tired of in a “care-home” somewhere far far away so we just don’t have to deal with them anymore. We have running water in our homes and access to whatever type of food or service we desire at any given moment. We can drive around in our not-good-enough-car and complain about the gas price on our way to window shop at WalMart, ending up with “a lot more than I came in for” on this drop-in-appointment of retail-therapy. When we’re stressed, we can get a massage or take a warm bath and light some petroleum candles. Do we even know what true suffering LOOKS like? Smells like? Sounds like? Feels like?
Like London says in his novel, the commercials and advertisements for children starving all over the world just aren’t working anymore (London 13). It’s too easy to just change the channel or mute the volume. We just aren’t fazed by that kind of thing anymore. Emotionally, it would seem that we have shut ourselves off completely to the concept of world-peace and non-violence and therefore expect there to be miserable people living all around the globe because “life’s not fair,” and “that’s just the way things are, kids.” Perhaps we would be better off to teach kids the real meaning behind “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” or “knowledge is power” instead of the all-too-common “because I said so” bullcrap that we so readily force-feed our youth these days. Maybe not all of our kids have ADD or ADHD either; perhaps they are curious and energetic and talented. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are simply infected with a strong case of “NDD,” a little thing my sister and I like to call: NO-Discipline Disorder.
As is shown very readily in between and among the words in London’s new book, One Day the Soldiers Came, children as young as four years old have been known to take on enormous responsibilities and social roles in the advent of the loss of a parent or “adult” caretaker. According to many respected scholars in the area of cultural anthropology and human development during one’s youth, children are generally extremely resilient and flexible to the environments to which they are exposed. Above being an entirely depressing and grounding account in terms of its very viable, indisputable content “straight from the mouths of babes,” London’s compilation serves as a potent reminder that humans, and perhaps not exclusively young children, have massive potential to overcome betrayals and hardships that knock them down in life, no matter how far they may seem to fall. Reading this book has caused me to experience a shift in the way I view other children and indeed myself as well. Children deserve a great deal more respect and credit than we here in North America would like to admit, but once we do perhaps we can begin to attach the correct emotional bridges to the images we let flash by us on the screen. That dead bunny rabbit is starting to look a lot less sad now, isn’t it?
Cohen, David Elliot. What Matters. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, 2008.
Little, Amanda. Power Trip. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009
London, Charles. One Day the Soldiers Came. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
Menzel, Peter. Material World. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1994.
Mint.com. America’s Poor: A Regional Look at Poverty in America. 20 October 2010.
United Nations, The. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” General Assembly of the United
Nations. 10 December 1948. 27 August 2010
Wikipedia. Waterboarding. 27 October 2010.