But then, there are the situations that do affect me. The ones that don't fade away with the next commercial, or the next offensive GOP debate answer. There are times when the politician, or the facebook status, or the news alert hits close to home. Those moments trigger the tears that lead to the exasperated eye rolls, the uneasy shoulder pats and, inevitably, the question I've never understood: "Why do you let it bother you so much?" I've yet to answer this particularly well, but I'm going to take a stab at it here.
When I speak to someone about the pain caused by some injustice, this is the response I often receive (or, it's cousin "Try not to let it bother you so much"). Sometimes the event won't affect me directly, but sometimes it's undeniably personal. In these more personal situations, I can understand where these responses come from; I'm no stranger to the impulse to comfort and to fix. People don't want to see me upset, and when there's a clear "villain" in the situation it can be easy from the outside to see a simple path to relief: That person is ignorant, so you shouldn't let it bother you. But this logic confuses me, and I feel like I'm always missing a link in the chain. What is it about ignorance that calls for a numb reaction? I suppose it's less hurtful than if it were malicious, but hurtful nonetheless. The end point is the same regardless of the intent: that crappy law was still passed, my dad's last remaining immediate family member still won't be at our wedding, and that bullied child is still dead. The ignorance itself is sad. We couldn't reach that person. Our efforts weren't enough. And, while too easy to forget, there are real consequences to that ignorance.
Perhaps that's what underlies my emotional reactions to the events that don't affect me directly: in my mind, they do. While I would not have thought to describe it in such eloquent terms, the African philosophy of Ubuntu that I've learned through my sister Steph does hit close to home. "I am because we are". I am able and good when you are able and good, but just as important, I am diminished when you are diminished. I am part of the system that contributes to that person's difficult road. We all are. That doesn't mean we are to blame, but it does mean that I feel connected to their struggle. And furthermore, I often think "That could have been me". My life experiences have taught me that bad things don't just happen to other people, they can (and do) happen to me and my family. Seeing or even imagining the pain from someone else's tragedy brings me back to my own. That perspective is part of me. No matter what hat I put on, even the Clinical Social Worker hat, I don't think that perspective should be changed. My reactions are not pathological--they are a product of my experiences. They may not be comfortable for either of us, but they are real.
If this sounds self-righteous or like I'm trying to martyr myself, I think you are missing the point. We all have unique ways of reacting to the awful happenings around us. We may write about it online, make it our career, make a phone call to a lawmaker, talk about it with our friends or partners, update our facebook status, or even turn away for a while when it's too overwhelming. We each have the right to our own experience, and this is mine. It is genuine, it is authentic, and sometimes it will annoy you. So, I suppose the simple answer to "Why do you let it bother you so much?" is: "I don't know any other way".
Photo by Laura McAndrew, of the wall outside Abbey Road Studios.