Home > Blog - In All Things > Dermot Roantree > Called to do the impossible

Called to do the impossible

Dermot Roantree :: Last week, around 7,500 kilometers from us here in Dublin, people watched their city sink bit by bit into the floodwaters of a record-breaking storm system. The effect was devastating. Not a few people drowned, others were killed by collapsing buildings or by accidents in the damaged streets. Large districts were made uninhabitable. Record numbers of people had to abandon their homes and make their way to relief shelters, carrying only as many possessions as they can fit into a couple of bags. Emergency assistance was far from adequate, and the normal life of the city – schools, businesses, shops, public services – was chronically disrupted. And at the very same time, around 7,500 kilometers from us in a different direction, the people of Houston, Texas, were mired in a disaster similar in type and in magnitude, even if, all things considered, not nearly as destructive.

We know a lot about one of these, much less about the other. When it comes to Houston we could hardly turn a blind eye even if we wanted to. There was a deluge of information to match the deluge of rainfall. Professional news coverage, mojo video footage, and an endless flow of posts to social media – all of these left us with a vivid sense of the appalling human and social cost. More than forty people lost their lives, 50,000 homes suffered flood damage, and over 30,000 people had to abandon their homes and go to shelters. The total price tag of the hurricane is likely to top $200 billion.

We have, however, a much dimmer sense of the suffering in the first-mentioned city – Mumbai, in India. The rainfall there was comparable to that of Hurricane Harvey, and even much worse at certain times and in certain places. Given the size of the city, over 12 million to Houston’s 2 million, as well as its underdeveloped infrastructure and its vast slum areas and shanty towns, the impact has been a great deal worse, yet mainstream coverage of this disaster fell far below that of Hurricane Harvey. And if Twitter is enough to go by, there were well over twenty times more social media posts about Houston than about Mumbai.

The discrepancy here is striking – all the more so when you consider that the monsoon rains that hit Mumbai also hit large areas of northern India, south Nepal, West Bengal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. If you take all these regions together, the death toll rises to more than 1,200, and more than 40 million people have seen their lives damaged or destroyed. As well as which, in many of these regions they expect to have epidemics of monsoon-borne diseases in the weeks ahead, which could well bring the fatality rate up substantially. Really, whatever metric you use, the cost of this single monsoon season alone is practically incalculable. What are we to do with the fact that we have paid much less attention to it than to a hurricane making landfall in Texas?

First we must acknowledge our obvious limitations. We are not built to feel meaningful and consequential empathy for all those who suffer on earth at any time. We find it hard enough to sustain that level of engagement even with the people in our immediate vicinity. And as the intentional object becomes larger and more abstract – the homeless, the hungry, the victims of violence, the poor, those in need – the more its motivating force tends to be reduced. We are incarnate creatures. We deal in the concrete. We need then to be confronted with concrete signifiers for us to apprehend the gravity of the human plight in one instance or another. Hence the importance of news coverage, of graphic images, video accounts, and victim narratives. But even then our attention spans are short, and other matters, either grave or trivial, call us away. And then again there is ‘compassion fatigue’. Care professionals and social work volunteers can be badly afflicted by this, leading them to apathy, a lack of self-care, and even substance abuse, but everyone can experience a milder form of it. When it comes to real compassion for the suffering people of the world, we are always already out of our depth. The calls on our attention are just too incomprehensible and too numerous.

In Luis Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana, the title character’s cousin Jorge is moved when he sees a farmer’s cart trundle along the road with a thin, exhausted dog tied to the back. When the farmer refuses to let the dog travel in the cart or walk freely, Jorge saves the dog from this cruelty by buying it and taking it away. But as he departs the scene the camera tracks another farmer and cart – with another thin and exhausted dog tied to the back. That’s how it goes: there is always another wretched dog that needs saving. After Hurricane Harvey and the South Asian monsoons there are the Syrian refugees, and the persecuted Rohingyans of Myanmar, and the millions of displaced Yemenis who face famine and death, and the millions of South Sudanese who face the very same, and the Muslims and Jews and Christians facing discrimination or repression in various parts of the world. And all this on top of the crises on our doorstep – the homeless, the victims of domestic abuse, sexually abused children, the unemployed. There is no end to these lists. Our minds and hearts are not able for all of this. As the bird in Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ pronounces, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”.

And yet humankind must. It may well be impossible to honour even the smallest fraction of the ethical demands made on us by the suffering people of the world, but this does not exempt us from the obligation to do it anyway – from the obligation to do the impossible. If we try we will fail, of course. Then we have no moral option other than, like the grim, clipped voice of Beckett’s monologue Worstward Ho!, to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

Put differently, my point is this. To be human is to be implicated in an impossible duty – the duty to recognise our limitless responsibility for every other person. In the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas, such a responsibility for the Other – which includes everyone – is awakened in the face-to-face encounter, which therefore becomes the basis of all ethics. Human life is fundamentally inter-subjective, and this presence of the Other subject puts us in question and makes an infinite demand on us.

The Judaeo-Christian correlate of this is, of course, the revelation that every last person is created in the image and likeness of God, is imprinted with the imago Dei. Every encounter with another person, no matter how unfamiliar they are, how remote they are from our national, linguistic, religious or cultural ingroups, is an encounter with the divine. Christians will remember the agonised question of those on the king’s left in Christ’s parable about the sheep and the goats [Matt. 25]: “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” And the King’s reply: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me”.

Christians will remember too that the great injunction in the Sermon of the Mount to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matt. 5:48] concerns not making value distinctions between people. More, it follows an explicit rejection of the economy, the calculus, that tends to lie behind our human interactions. Everyone loves those who love them, but they expect that these will love them back. Everyone will extend a welcome to their friends and neighbours. They know that they will receive a similar welcome in return. But the call to perfection is precisely about demolishing that economy. It’s about loving one’s enemies and loving strangers, about loving people who don’t belong to any of our ingroups, about loving without any thought of reciprocation. This is the utterly unrestrictive love of God, the God who lets the sun rise on the bad as well as on the good. As I have said, we are called to do the impossible.

In post-structuralist accounts of ethics this is called an ‘aporetic situation’. There is an internal contradiction, an irresolvable conflict, an aporia, at the heart of the call to responsible action in the world. Responsible action is zero-sum. Attention given to one cause is attention no longer available for other causes. I can only honour the precept to recognise my duty to all humanity by acting on that duty in one particular case, then another, then another. How do I decide on which cases I ought to act? The issue is undecidable, and yet we must decide.

I don’t intend to make any suggestions for how practically we can resolve this conundrum. My point is different. I want to say that whatever decisions we make, whatever way we respond to suffering in the world, we need to realise that the ethical command to reverence every last soul is never suspended.

This does not make acting ethically any easier. Quite the contrary. Simone Weil wrote not long before her death of her “increasing sense of devastation… at my inability to think with truth at the same time about the affliction of men, the perfection of God and the link between the two.” This is the sign of her ethical depth – her being rendered less and less able to fathom the impossible truth of God’s intimate presence in every person and the obligations which that sets before us.

If we don’t get a hint of that sense of being overwhelmed it might be because we have, for our own convenience, cut the cloth of ethical responsibility down to a manageable size. We have decided to our own satisfaction who is more worthy of our help and who is less so. We have attached different values to different lives. We have turned our gaze away from one set of sufferers after another, saying that they are someone else’s responsibility, that we have done our bit.

Worst of all is when we call on theological or religious arguments to support our venality. It is only right, we say, that Christian nations should look after Christian refugees and let Muslim nations look after their own. Or we say that charity must be prudent, and use this as a pretext for justifying an immigration ban. Or we support such a ban after insisting that charity is “intelligent”, that it always asks “exactly who are these immigrants? Are they really refugees, and what communities can sustain them?” Or we say that the Church’s teaching sets the common good over the good of particular persons, and that central to the common good is the promotion of human flourishing; therefore, we are under no obligation to these refugees or those, because their presence would impair that flourishing. Or we simply decry Europe’s “suicide by Islam” and warn against “the rape of Europe”. All of these positions have been asserted by Catholic commenters in recent times. None of them is compatible with our radical responsibility, as humans and as Christians, to every person without exception.

The Church teaches the equal dignity of all the children of God. It stresses solidarity with everyone on the grounds of that equality. It insists that the common good is primarily the universal common good, not the good of one body of citizens set against the good of other bodies of citizens. It has always repeated that the goods of the earth are there for all people to enjoy, not just people of certain nations and certain classes. It even goes so far as to say that the poor have a right in justice to a share in the wealth of the rich. We will never fully honour these high principles, but the real sin would be to deny that they are even there.

Of course we have to be sensible, reasonable and practical when it comes to caring for refugees. But the day should never come when we are not, as Jacques Derrida puts it, “haunted by the ghost of undecidability” – overwhelmed by the multiple demands which the needs of the world make on us and unable to be satisfied with our choices. We have to acknowledge the awful limits of our capacity for reparative action, and we need to stay alive to our absolute duty to suffering people the world over – even as we fail to perform it.