The Human Thread

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Resist the “Big Shrug”

August 08, 2016

Author: editor

Category: Act


Some years back, I remember a policy expert writing about the importance of generating new statistics that might wake the public up to hunger and poverty. The writer insisted that searching out those dramatic illustrations of our condition is an important exercise in hope, hope that things will change, in spite of what the author dubbed “the big shrug.” I cannot find the original article, although I found something from Paul Krugman that similarly invokes “The Big Shrug.” Krugman’s reference is to policy makers more than the general public.

This week, a moving photo has made the rounds. The photo (above), and the story of its origins, has shocked and moved many viewers. It may briefly awaken us from our complacency and draw us anew to ask what we can do. I also recall another photo of another boy from Syria.

This image from a Turkish beach likewise shocked and moved when it appeared in September of 2015. We cannot say that we do not know about these things. Sadly, little has changed in our attitudes and actions towards the violence in Syria.

Similarly, our work at The Human Thread with the garment industry, on behalf of international garment workers, also arises from dramatic moments when our attention shifts to those persons all-too-often invisible to us. The tragic events at Rana Plaza momentarily drew us from our sleep to see the garment worker as neighbor, as brother and sister.

The temptation is fall into complacency, bitterness, even fatalism, in Krugman’s words “a sense that nothing need be done and nothing can be done.” With Syria or with the garment industry, such big forces are at work, what can one person do? We must guard against despair and the litany of temptations that can bring us low and impede change.

In 2015, Pope Francis, speaking of the “globalization of indifference,” invites us to move beyond “the big shrug.” He calls us to learn to see others as sister and brother, no matter their nationality, language, race, or creed. The work of justice, our work, is born of honesty and hope. It sees the world clearly as it is, and it sees the world as it should be, as God made it to be. Our work is to nudge the world as it is to be closer to the world as it should be.

In his Lenten message of 2015, Pope Francis urged three actions to resist the globalization of indifference:

As individuals too, we are tempted by indifference. Flooded with news reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness? First, we can pray in communion with the Church on earth and in heaven. Let us not underestimate the power of so many voices united in prayer!

Second, we can help by acts of charity, reaching out to both those near and far through the Church’s many charitable organizations. Lent is a favourable time for showing this concern for others by small yet concrete signs of our belonging to the one human family.

Third, the suffering of others is a call to conversion, since their need reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters. If we humbly implore God’s grace and accept our own limitations, we will trust in the infinite possibilities which God’s love holds out to us. We will also be able to resist the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves.

Let us then commit ourselves anew to prayer, to personal acts of charity, and to conversion. May this shape our hearts and give us strength to do walk the long road to justice, the long road to see all as our sisters and brothers.