“In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day, without letting one’s thoughts be diverted by anything- by meals, by a fly that settles on one’s cheek, by household duties, or by a sudden itch somewhere. But there are always flies and itches. That’s why life is difficult to live.”
-Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
I live a very cloistered existence. I’d venture to say that most of us do, hermetically separate from the world at large, with an array of unbelievably powerful accouterments ever at hand, fully charged, ready to come alive with the flip of a switch or the swipe of a finger. Ready to edify us, and mollify our self-centered guilt. Physically, we operate in tight circles, circumscribed by city limits and county lines and miles traveled per gallon. But we like to entertain the notion that we are “connected” to this greater sphere-without-our-sphere—that we, by keeping abreast of the news and valiantly taxing our mental space to accommodate everything outside our ambit, are somehow providing a service for our species, propping it up with our mutually benign interest. This is patently absurd, yet we persist in the delusion, even thrive on it.
Obviously I’m generalizing. (And being somewhat of a dick about it.) Being in the know is better than blithely bumbling about, callous and benighted and utterly self-interested. It informs our decision-making, colors our personal view of the wider world. But what, exactly, is the value of simply knowing? Are we more inclined to act on that knowledge, once obtained, or does this facile charade perversely satisfy some moral obligation within our collective psyche, absolving us of duty? We read the articles, append some ill-formed comment to the discussion, share it with our “friends”, then move on to something else. It smacks of complacency, of dissembling, of going through the back-patting motions. What is actually accomplished here?
Not a whole lot, I’d argue. The more we know, it seems, the less efficacious we become. But this doesn’t necessarily represent shortcoming on an individual level. As Erica Schoenberger, teaching in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at John Hopkins University, has written, “We may have very good intentions as individuals, but the options we have available to choose among are structured by larger, impersonal forces.” Sadly though it may be, those worldly woes and ills eclipse our puny orbits. Their scale all too often engenders a remoteness, an impalpability that leaves us grasping at straws, constructing armies of straw men to stand behind.
It’s enough to make one throw up their hands at the whole enterprise. Hie it back to the hermitage, where the clicks and “likes” and page views assuage the conscience. But I’m a pessimistic tree-hugging misanthrope sitting high in an ivory tower. I’m as complicit and feckless as anyone else. From this vantage, everything looks very far-off and tragic, indeed.