A tiger killed by floods in the north Indian state of Assam. Photo: Uttam Saikia/AP


“So far this year, at least 140 million people across 37 countries have been left in need of humanitarian aid. But most of them will not get it.” The Observer*

I can’t even imagine what suffering on this level looks like but I sense it in my body. It feels heavy and I feel waves of hopelessness wash over me as images of floods in Asia and Texas, the fires in LA and B.C, the starving children and families in Africa flit through my mind. It’s enough to make me want to turn my back on it all.

And turn my back on it all I have. In the past, I have turned off the tv, logged off from social media and placed my phone on a shelf, face down. Rather than relief, this only adds the guilt of apathy and in action in the face of tragedy, to the equation.

The overload, plus self-reproach is simply too much, there seem to be no other options. How can we prepare ourselves to help others in a world where these events are increasing in frequency and effect?

As with any problem, find the cause then be the solution. How do you get to the point where the overload can not stop you? Find out why the overload exists.

Perhaps Stalin’s tragic understatement is true after all: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic” But why? Why does a quantitative increase in suffering trigger a paradoxical emotional response?

In other words, why do we become apathetic from the increasing scale of a tragedy? Why do we feel or become apathetic when confronted by situations that would typically evoke a more empathic response from us?

Studies have been done exploring these very questions, but rather than look for a cause, they were undertaken to establish a correlation which is now called the “collapse of compassion”. So now we have a label, but still, no reason why it exists.

I have thought about this a great deal and here is my theory. Humans are not built to comprehend and feel the suffering of 140 million people physically, emotionally or mentally. The human machine cannot handle it. Just as humans can hold their breath underwater for minutes, but not for hours, we can comprehend the gravity of a few deaths, but not the totality of thousands. 

I can back up my theory with Dunbar’s Number theory. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who posits that 150 is the upper limit of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships with.

He has suggested that “this limit is a direct function of neocortex size, and … this, in turn, limits group size where stable interpersonal relationships can be maintained.”

The actual number may vary from person to person, but the point here is that we can only handle so much caring, sharing and bearing the hardships of others. This explains the growing apathy in response to a growing tragedy that we may be encountering in ourselves.

Now we have a working name for the phenomenon and a cause, but does this help anyone? Does this allow us to do better in the face of calamity such as we are experiencing? No, it does not, but if we are going to handle the problems of the future, we must go beyond our limits.

We must exceed our programming.

So, what do we do? Or, more accurately, where do we start?  

In these situations, the first thing I do is go deeper to settle the anxiety and flurry of thoughts that press into my mind and heart.

I close my eyes and ask my Higher Self (HS) – the part of me that is all loving, all knowing, intuitive voice –  to take a form. It takes the form of a flowering bush in a desert. As I look at the bush, I sense it’s full and peaceful even though it is surrounded by the desert. I feel a calm begin to open in me.

I ask my HS to show me what would help those 140 million people. Once again I see images of floods, fires, destitution, fear, and hopelessness. I also see confusion and chaos. Questioning of deeply held beliefs and God.

Then I feel a powerful surge of energy blasting out of my chest, an energy of peace and calm. I feel it coming from the universe through the top of my head and out through my chest and solar plexus. I begin to feel this energy touch the flood waters, the muddy rivers, the trees, people, and animals.

But I am jolted out of my focus by my mind. “What about the fires?” “ What about the famine?”” What about the violence?”

I can feel the overwhelm begin to kick in. Instead of allowing myself to be fractured by these questions, I pull back into the calm, peaceful energy and continue to ride its currents.

I feel all my senses begin to form into One sense, I feel myself merge into the calm, peaceful energy. My body, my heart quietening. Now I am ready to hear what my part is in all that is happening.

I listen to my HS: “Don’t think right now. Tune into the calm and peace; that’s the necessary component for creating order when there is chaos. Imagine radiating peace to the people, animals, and the planet. Imagine the hurricane calming down, floods calmly receding, the fires dying out, people finding shelter, food and safety. Imagine all these things happening.

If enough people imagine these things, then together, we can find solutions to all these challenges. Allow yourself to contribute this calm and peaceful energy. Hold out your hand with this calm energy to center you and those around you. Give from this place. Act from this awareness and presence.”

As the meditation comes to an end, I am reminded that there is only so much one can do or feel and although we can exceed our programming, we can not exceed our means. Whatever actions you choose to take upon yourself, be it donating money, raising awareness, praying, volunteering or simply being there for someone who has lost people they care about in tragedy, all of these actions must be done from a place of peace and calm. Being anxious or overwhelmed doesn’t help those in need.


Charities to donate to calmly 🙂

American Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders