The media has been swimming in headlines regarding the recent ISIS attacks in Paris and Beirut. With the influence of social media upon our modern culture, thousands of blog posts, news articles, and heated opinions have been circulating around the internet offering various insights on the world situation — and the American public is taking notice, perhaps now more than ever. While working for the Hildebrand Project this semester, it wasn’t long until I started to wonder what von Hildebrand would say about the times in which we live.
In the United States, an alarming mentality towards world events has been developing over the years. Whether it is intentional or not, many Americans have adopted a rather apathetic stance towards foreign nations. We live in relative peace, security, and comfort, and when headlines flash across the bottom of a screen detailing turmoil, insecurity, and discomfort in other nations, there is a tendency to feel completely removed from it — as if it is happening on another planet.
We have numbed ourselves to empathy.
We no longer respond justly to the value of our fellow man. While vocal support for the nation of France has been tremendous following the terrorist attacks, the equally heinous attacks in Lebanon went relatively unnoticed. We find it easier and even automatic to respond sympathetically to nations whose culture reminds us of our own, but when a culture is completely foreign to us, it seems that we feel too distanced to experience outrage when wrong has been done. With the increased awareness of violence in the world since 2001, we have become habitually numb in order to cope.
In an anti-Nazi essay written for Der christliche Standestaat, Hildebrand states, “habit is a sort of beneficial adaptability in human beings that can make their lives more bearable, yet it is also a force that can diminish the spiritual alertness of a person, which is the foundation of all true moral and spiritual life” (1). Being used to suffering in the world becomes automatic because it seemingly frees us from the obligation to respond with justice. Interestingly enough, Hildebrand not only points out the danger of growing used to evil and suffering, but also to the danger of growing used to beauty, truth, and goodness. In order to respond justly to the world around us, we must start by being brave enough to feel deeply. I don’t ever want to live in a world where I am simply used to the sunset over the Rocky Mountains, or the sound of a violin, or the perfectly formed face of an infant, or the moody colors of a masterful piece of art, or the splendor of the Sacraments. To respond justly to good things is to respond with awe. Thus, “in such cases, habit has an exclusively negative effect, for the grateful appreciation of all things that are good should never diminish; nothing should ever be simply taken for granted” (2). The moment that we abandon awe, curiosity, and wonder, we begin to abandon a key part of what makes us human in the first place.
Hildebrand continues: “nor must we ever get used to sin --- for then moral disvalues such as infidelity, injustice, mendacity, or brutality will no longer make any impression on us” (3). A huge factor that Hildebrand points to in contributing to this numbness is surrounding ourselves with the wrong people. If we surround ourselves with people who are increasingly dismissive of headlines or lacking in empathy, “as a result of putting up with their attitude,” we find ourselves, “slowly becom[ing] poisoned” (4). A person will become more or less morally desensitized based upon the moral climate in which they repeatedly place themselves. On a much larger scale, if a national government employs laws that are radically opposed to the natural law, the land as a whole will be in “a much greater danger of demoralization, even for all those who do not live within its borders” (5). How does one resist the desensitizing effects of one’s surroundings? Hildebrand seems to suggest a fight for a more sensitive outlook towards injustice.
This requires the bravery to feel.
We must not look at crime, vices, or tragedies in the modern world in a glazed over, general way. We must be brave enough to allow our hearts to respond justly to each crime, each vice, and each tragedy individually. “Each crime remains isolated, and despite their frequency, we never grow so accustomed to them that our criteria change and we tacitly tone down our moral demands” (6). Murder in France, a nation that seems similar and familiar to our own, is just as heinous, disgusting, and worthy of our mourning as murder in Lebanon, a nation that, sadly, many Americans didn’t even know existed until it began popping up in the headlines. Murder is murder.
I pray we may always be brave enough to mourn.
- The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted, Dietrich von Hildebrand