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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: What to do when the world’s on fire

Cars drive down East Cameron Avenue between the Old Well and South Building on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Every time I read the news, scroll on social media, or even just step outside, I’m inundated with news of escalating global tensions. The death toll in Gaza exceeded 24,000 people, the United Nations reported that over 7.4 million people have been displaced by the war in Sudan and an onslaught of missile attacks hit Ukraine all within the span of three days. It’s harrowing. 

Some young people are directly involved in solutions to these conflicts. The Palestinian Youth Movement is a youth-led organization that fights for justice and liberation of Palestine. In Eastern Europe, a group of young women organized an anti-war movement that combines climate activism with advocacy against the war in Ukraine. 

However, as someone who is relatively removed from the conflicts, I often feel paralyzed and powerless despite wanting to help. I’m not geographically near any of the major global conflicts, so I can’t be directly involved in the fighting or relief efforts. I do not belong to any of the most affected communities, and I worry about decentralizing the voices of people who are. I also have limited money and political influence to lend to the causes. 

What can and should I do? More broadly, what is the role of young people in a world embroiled in global conflicts?

It’s difficult to definitively say exactly what one should do in situations as complex as these. However, what follows are some ways that I have found to combat feelings of emotional paralysis in the face of global conflict. 

One of the most basic things that young people can do is stay informed. In a 2022 study, the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford found that 40 percent of young people aged 18-24 "sometimes or often" actively avoid the news. Many of the study’s participants cited the overwhelming and depressing nature of news as the reason for their avoidance. 

Given how many young people avoid the news, it’s crucial that we stay informed about conflicts, even when the topics present a bleak view of the world. Staying informed can be as simple as staying up-to-date on news and engaging in discussions with other people. 

This may seem like an impossible task. How can we possibly know every minute detail about all global conflicts? We really can’t. We can, however, put in a meaningful effort to seek out information from reputable sources and approach this task with humility and an open mind. 

Calling for young people to stay informed may also seem entirely ineffectual. If one of the problems is an emotional paralysis-inducing overload of information, it seems counterintuitive to suggest seeking out more information as a solution. The distinction between the problem and the solution lies in how the information is obtained. In one case, the information is unduly thrust on to the receiver, while the other counters paralysis because it inherently requires action. 

Learning about global conflicts can also be a catalyst for other supportive actions such as participating in boycotts, donating to humanitarian aid organizations, and reaching out to someone who may be affected by the conflicts. These efforts do not have the broad scope that the actions of someone in a position of power have, but they still can make an impact. 

Throughout this process, people who are less affected by the conflicts must focus on the most affected people. We must remember that although everyone is affected by global tragedies, not everyone is affected equally. 

Clinical psychologist Susan Silk’s Ring Theory is a good framework for understanding how to go about helping people who are affected by global conflicts. The theory asks us to envision people in sets of concentric social rings, with the people closest to the crisis in the center ring and the distance from the crisis increasing with each consecutive outer ring. Silk said that people should “comfort in” to people in rings inside theirs and “dump out” to people in rings outside of theirs. 

By asking us to “comfort in,” the theory requires compassion, not just empathy. While empathy is a good tool to shift the focus away from ourselves, it can also cause empathetic distress, where the magnitude of a tragedy is so large that empathy causes one to feel apathetic. 

Compassion, on the other hand, involves understanding other people's feelings and offering comfort. It elicits action, so it’s a way to combat feelings of paralysis and powerlessness that young people may feel in the face of so much tragedy. More importantly, compassion is a more effective way to actually help those who need it. 

There’s no one right way to act when the world is in the face of so many wars across the globe, but we shouldn’t feel helpless, as there are ways to make an impact, even if it's on a smaller scale.

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