Studying war has always been strange for me. I’ve been doing it for many years, both for school and out of personal interest. My major, international relations, came into being shortly after the end of World War II, precisely to figure out the origins of human conflict and how to resolve it (obviously, it now encompasses far more than that). Chalk up the fact that I’m also a news junkie, especially for international events – which are sadly often violent in nature – and I’m steeped in human conflict.
Aside from the bouts of cynicism and melancholy that result from steady exposure to so much human misery, there’s also a sense of surrealness – I’m learning about events that have taken the lives of so many people, and ruined the lives of so many more, without really accepting that they ever happened.
World War II alone killed 50 to 60 million human beings, additionally traumatizing and wounding more than double that number, yet I read about it as if it were a fictional story. It was a real event, sure, and I’m certainly aware of its effects. But it doesn’t’ feel like it happened. I don’t connect with the millions of people who suffered horrific and senseless pain. I don’t feel the emotional and physical weight of it. Because I wasn’t there, I just don’t know what it’s like, no matter how hard I try.
It’s the same with current events too. The bombings, massacres, tribal conflicts, state-sponsored oppression – none of it really registers. It saddens and upsets me sometimes, but I don’t truly know what any of it is like. I’ve never seen or experienced it. It feels unreal because it’s not right there in front of me. When I read harrowing first hand accounts or see graphic images and videos, I can only connect so much. Try as I might, my mind is incapable of absorbing the full gravity of what I’m seeing.
And in many ways, that’s probably a good thing. I’d probably be bedridden with depression if I could completely feel what all these unfortunate people do. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that this is something of an evolutionary development: the human mind was never intended to absorb so much data, given our origins as a tribal a widely dispersed tribal species. And certainly, our cognitive limitations help us to focus on what’s immediately around us – which is usually more important – rather than what’s going on farther away (look up “psychic numbing” and the research of Paul Slovik).
But still, I can’t shake off how strange it is to know that so much has happened in the past, and so much is happening now, that I’m completely oblivious to on a deeper level. Even as I speak, people are dying, being born, or experiencing a myriad of different events and emotions simultaneously. Seven billion stories are going on at this very second, some ending and some just beginning. Billions more are behind us, and (if all goes well) many more await us. Additionally, it’s grim to imagine that the overwhelming majority of these stories are rife with injustice, misery, and hardship – though there’s plenty of perseverance mixed in there as well, since that’s what humans have always done best, given the circumstances.