Myanmar and Relativism

I felt like writing something about the news, and because I watch CBS Morning News (I like the whole team), had to choose between Positively Prom Week or


I picked Myanmar over Prom Week.

I know, I know. You wanted Prom Week. So check this website (sure, they're selling stuff, but it's still cute) for a Prom Dos and Don'ts list. Maybe we'll embellish it later.


A cyclone wiped out nearly one hundred thousand people this week in an impoverished country, Myanmar (think Burma, Monks, Thailand, that little cranny of the world). The military regime blocked humanitarian efforts at rescue and support, too, strangely enough. Food, medicine, water, all turned away by the junta. The alternative for the people of Myanmar is salt water.

Today the junta let U.N. rescue efforts into the country, and Turkey promised a million dollars in relief assistance.

Why should we care? It’s so far away.

Maybe it helps us put our own stuff into perspective.

Ironically, I tell depressed people not to watch the news. And I mean it. If everything depressing makes things worse, then turn off the teev. (Television has everything depressing, even funny can be depressing when you know it's funny but you can't laugh).

For those of us who can take it, the suffering of our race, the human race, I mean, not the race divided, watching the news is simply what we do. Although depressing, scary, and sobering, events near and far away tickle at our sense of relativism, assuming we we let our defenses down, release ourselves from our self-protective comfort zones.

Relativism is that healthy perspective, the one that mental health professionals often talk about, the one we can’t ram at you for fear you’ll think us not empathetic. Yet we hope that at some point you’ll come to own it, too. Really own it and find comfort in it.

You can still be depressed. It's okay.

Relativism means:
There are others worse off than me.

There but for the grace of . . go I.
It could be us in Mayanmar. But it isn’t.

So we give charity and lobby for our government to help the suffering nations of the world. And for a moment, from our armchairs watching digital H-D, that hot cup of coffee at our sides, nibbling on a croissant, wondering, What should I make for lunch, from this heaven on earth some of us ask, How did I get so lucky?

Holocaust survivors think this way every single day. Clean drinking water and food? Gevaldik (delicious)

Not everyone has it. It's salt water in Myanmar. That’s what they’ve got.

Asleep as Cyclone Nargis hit, people woke up to the sound of high winds, roofs flying, trees falling, some on their own homes. I can't imagine.



Leora said…
I stopped watching tv news after the Gulf War, when the visions of Israeli children in gas masks terrified me.

On 9/11, my friend turned off the tv when I hid in her house, both of us terrified. So the images would not be in my head.

For news, I listen to the radio and read newswires off the internet. I don't get the scary images in my head.
Nina said…
"I tell depressed people not to watch the news."

The news are often depressing, I admit it. But it is so important to know what is going on in the world, even if it hurts.

And who knows, realising how serious those problems are, might help the patient to overcome theirs..
Anonymous said…
I also much prefer the radio or the web.
Jack said…
Sometimes it is easy for me to look at others and think that my life is pretty good, but not always.

They may be starving in Myanamar but in the end it won't help me pay the mortgage.

Don't mean to sound callous, but...
therapydoc said…
Feeling good requires a tremendous capacity for denial. See, denial's not such a bad thing!
therapydoc said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
therapydoc said…
Which is why I said it's okay to be depressed. But it's not happy.

Not that there's a prescription for happy, since we're only happy if healthy (I'm guessing) a couple of hours at best a day, unless we get a lot of naps.

Suspending our reality testing (the mortgage, the mortgage, oy vey) is impossible, really, most of the time.

And relativism only works for a couple of minutes.

Going to the catastrophic expectation (being okay being homeless?) can sometimes help.

And then there are the emunah people. Emunah (rhymes with Gem-moo-duh) probably translates to faith, but is a more interactive word, puts the believer into the sorry position of having to justify why, indeed, he or she should be worthy of a little help from above.

It's cheaper than therapy, no question. The problem is that most of us are incapable of it, and some of us, indeed, think of it as magical thinking.

But some of the best songs are about magic, no?
Leora said…
Jack, I agree. I used to resent it when people told me I had it good, look at how bad these other folks have it.

Now that I am feeling less depressed I can listen to all sorts of people's stories. But when I was more depressed, hearing about others who aren't doing well wasn't helpful.
I'm not a big tv news person, although I often listen to NPR on the way in to work in the morning.

I never know what to do with the info I get in the news. I mean, sure what's going on in Burma is sad.... tragic even, but I'm not a zillionaire, so I really don't have a way to help those people, although I certainly feel for them.

What I can do is to try to make my own little corner of the world a little better. Help fight poverty and ignorance and under-education and all of that stuff at home in the best way that I can.

Maybe Burma and all of those other far-away places with terrible things happening are reminders of what happens if we allow injustice, ignorance, a military junta, or even too large a gap between the rich and the poor to gain ground at home.
therapydoc said…
Oh, I very much like this approach, Midwife. Thanks so much.
Anonymous said…
"Why should we care? It’s so far away."

The tyranny of distance is remarkable. There is an essay by philosopher Peter Singer on it, 'Famine, Affluence and Morality,' which provides an argument for a utilitarian viewpoint:

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

I don't wholly agree with the ways this could be applied but I think it still carries quite a bit of weight. However, I would add that there is a difference between individual responsibility and, say, corporate or governmental responsibility. I would also argue that urgency of need is a factor, and not merely practical ability.

So out of this all I wanted to ask: Do you think that that position would make us happy/happier in the long run? Is relativism about outcomes or is it the light bulb moment that counts?
therapydoc said…
Catatonic, great question. I'm working on a response to the many readers who are not able to be "relativistic" when they're depressed, (of course) and in that response there's a piece about doing SOMETHING.

To me the light bulb,the cognitive part is the beginning. It's behavior, the action, that's makes cognitive behavioral therapy curative.

Does that help?
Anonymous said…
It does help. If it goes thoughts -> feelings -> behaviour then we'd have to repeat it all to see the rewards so happiness isn't in the act alone. So if we held to a strictly utilitarian viewpoint then we probably wouldn't be any happier about it. Moral certitude rarely seems to lead to joy.

We'd probably reach a relativistic position that includes action through thinking about where we sit in relation to others, and feeling happier because of it. That's rare, as you point out, since it's not schadenfreude but a true empathy that doesn't kill your soul. Maybe relativism is partly a desire to share that connection? I guess you'd need a baseline of exceptionally consistent belief in human goodness/worth.