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Wendy Litner

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What to Do About Somalia When There is Nothing You Can Do

Posted: 08/19/11 01:55 PM ET

I have no voyeuristic tendencies, and while I watch my share of trashy, reality television shows ("Love in the Wild," anyone?) I have yet to sit through an entire episode of "Big Brother." I just find it too unsettling to watch people living their day-to-day lives. Not one to like a scene, if there is an accident on the road, a throng of people or fire trucks pulled up in front of someone's home, I always look away so as to give people their privacy.

When it comes to large-scale human tragedies, however, I am all over them. I will sit in front of the TV for hours on end, biting my nails, watching the news play the same couple of clips over and over again, none of which provide any new information. I'll keep my laptop open and read articles about the disaster during commercial breaks so that I'm covered on both mediums. I have devoted countless motionless hours to the tsunami in Thailand, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, Egyptian riots, soldiers dying overseas and the Casey Anthony trial.

So it has been for me with Somalia. I have obsessed over the same images, uttered the same horrified remarks every time they appear on the screen and read the same stories over again. It's exhausting you know, sitting for hours, being a repository for such little information. In the wee hours of the morning, my husband calls me to bed, but I can't possibly go to sleep! Who is going to going to hold this unproductive vigil if not me? I know Anderson is there, so the Somalians are in good hands, but can he really feed all the children? His biceps are definitely amazing, but how far does that really get you in a famine?

Holding up the remote, I look at my own, uninspiring arms and feel completely impotent in my ability to help. Other than donate a small bit of money and hope it's not channeled into the wrong hands, I don't know what else to do. I marvel at the relief workers who distribute food and nurse the sick. While I'm sitting on my couch, they are saving lives. That is a huge productivity gap. I hardly think my forgoing a second bowl of cereal is going to bring relief to anything but my pants.

Being all the way over here in North America, I feel like the only thing I can really contribute is my empathy. And Lord knows I have stockpiles of that. I may not be able to hand out any rice to hungry people or comfort ones in need; I may not be able to heal the sick or fund massive relief efforts, but I can lump my throat with sensitivity and well up my eyes with compassionate tears. I can wish that these people aren't going through what they are going through. I can wish the world was different, that it was easier for all of us.

I've been told that obsessing over tragedy is a common feature among the depressed, and I have been trying to figure out why exactly that is. It just seems so backward. Why would sad people, who already have very little enthusiasm for their own existence, inundate themselves with so much sorrow? If I know watching the reports out about the crowded refugee camps is going to trigger my anxiety, and if reading the statistics on starvation is going to keep me lying awake at night wondering about the cruelty of the universe, then why do I do it? What purpose does it serve?

I think I do it because I know what it feels like to be sad. Certainly, I don't know what it's like to starve, to trek through the heat and fight for basic human necessities. But I do know what hopelessness feels like. I know the bleakness of despair and the knawing feeling that peace and happinness will forever allude me. I think it's this anguish that draws me in. The overwhelming desire to hoard all the world's sadness so that no one, on the entire face of the planet, will feel the way I do.