The Big Issue : Edition 453
RAZER PHOTOGRAPHSBYJAMESBRAUND(RAZER)ANDALANATTWOOD(RICKY) THEBIGISSUE7–20MAR2014 13 Compassion Inc. » Helen Razer is a writer, gardener and thinker. Also the forward scout for Australia’s NEXT Winter Olympics team. Anyone with an aptitude for sliding on ice or twirling in the air should contact her or send videos. “We grew to believe we were in control of our compassion and cynical about all of the walls in the world – concrete, Soviet or otherwise.” THE FIRST TIME I cried for someone other than myself was the first time I learned there were people in the world who had no shelter. I was five years old and overcome for the first time with the paralysing pain of compassion when I saw images of children in Ethiopia. This place, it seemed, was Hell. It was a vision that remains beyond my understanding. I saw people my age who wore very little, ate virtually nothing and lived directly beneath an unrelenting television sun, and it made no sense. Of course, I grew up and learned about a global market that produced dependent economies, and it made a bit more sense. But only the purely logical kind of sense. I still cannot say that I understand what it is to live without the possibility of shelter. And, as I get older, I think I understand it less. This lack of understanding is not due to a dearth of compassion; actually, I think it’s probably the result of too much. Let me explain this to you. Let me tell you a little about the places and the thoughts that led me to this lack of understanding. We all like to think of ourselves as fully conscious, as rational actors in full command of our cynicism. We talk about the unjust power systems we can see. We danced when the Berlin Wall fell. We sent money to Ethiopia. Or Somalia. Or Bangladesh. We grew to believe we were in control of our compassion and cynical about all of the walls in the world – concrete, Soviet or otherwise. And yet I don’t see how being rationally compassionate is possible, because I know I am not in command of myself. And I know there is so much I can never possibly know and walls I cannot see. And I know that, long ago, my compassion was not only compromised by the screen but also that it would go on to compromise me. I was thinking about this recently when another group of people in urgent need of shelter became the target, for two sides, of a mass compassion: the “maritime arrivals” who seek asylum in Australia and are taken to off-shore detention facilities that Amnesty and other independent organisations say are gulags removed from the most basic human liberties. On one side, we have compassionate people saying “stop the boats” because they believe people-smuggling is terrible. On the other, we have compassionate people saying “let them all come”, because they believe that being without a nation is terrible. They are both right. And they are both horribly wrong. We cannot “stop the boats” and we cannot “let them all come” and we cannot, by any means, rely on our compassion to lead us to a solution. When I was five and looking at the television screen, my compassion was real. But quickly my compassion became useless and overwhelming. I think of the kids seeing these images of other kids in boats and I don’t know what to do. For the kids in boats, at least, I can write to my MP and demand we give these babies shelter. But I’m not sure how to protect the kids watching. You can’t write to anyone and demand that young minds aren’t squeezed for compassion for political ends – as mine was when I was told the Communists had caused the Ethiopian famine. I gave up the shelter of the conscious mind when my compassion was forced to produce a hatred for the Soviets. These little ones are learning that it is either people smugglers or Tony Abbott who are the source of their distress. Their compassion is made political long before it should be. The shelter of consciously knowing ourselves is under immense threat. We need to fight to keep it. And it is only in continuing to fight this battle for our own small shelter in the mind that we can meaningfully fight for others – those whom, sometimes, we can no longer even see.