Making the Tsunami Tragedy Real

The numbers alone can be numbing.

More than 100,000 dead from the earthquake and tsunamis that pummeled Southeast Asia and eastern Africa. Up to 5 million people around the tsunami-struck Indian Ocean are struggling for access to drinking water, shelter, food and health care.

Add to that the fact that the tragedy struck in regions thousands of miles from this country and happened mostly to people who live very different lives from most Americans. Psychologists say there are plenty of reasons why Americans may be finding it hard to fathom the scope of the tragedy.

But, they add, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

"It may not feel real to some since the tragedy is so huge and is on the other side of the world," said Chicago psychiatrist Alan Hirsch. "But feeling empathy is what sets humans apart and is a critical aspect of humanitarian efforts."

Money Flooding In

According to preliminary reports from relief agencies, thousands of Americans have been empathetic and are responding in kind.

Carol Garrison of the Red Cross reports that since Dec. 26, her group has received more than $19.1 million in donations from corporations, philanthropic organizations and individuals.

"People are being amazingly generous," she said.

Mercy Corps, a relief group based in Portland, Ore., has been flooded with $3 million in donations and expects to raise at least $7 million more. Another group, Save the Children, has received $5 million in donations since the disaster from corporate and private donations.

"It has been enormous and generous," said Dianne Sherman, spokeswoman for the group. "It has taken us by surprise but naturally we're delighted."

This kind of generosity is crucial given the scope of the devastation. To get a sense of the scale, Hirsch suggests taking some of those devastating death toll numbers and comparing them with the population of your home city or town. For example, 100,000 people amounts to roughly the same number of people living in Gary, Ind., or about one-quarter of the entire population of Oakland, Calif., or just under one-third of the population of St. Louis.

"Imagine if this many people in your hometown were suddenly wiped out," he said. "It's almost unthinkable."

Another way to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy is to look for individual stories, particularly those we might relate to, says Robert Butterworth, a psychologist at International Trauma Associates, based in Los Angeles. He points out that it's human nature to identify with people who are like ourselves.

"It may be hard to understand the life of someone living in a hut in Indonesia," he said. "But you can relate to the tourist who was taking a week vacation between the holidays and was then found lying lifeless by a pool. By understanding one person's tragedy, you can begin to get a sense of what everyone is going through."

Finding Similarity Through Empathy

While it may be more difficult to sympathize with people very different from ourselves, studies have shown that simply the act of imagining another's grief can shed light on how we are, in fact, similar.

Psychologist Janet Strayer of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia instructed 73 children aged 6 to 13 years, to watch a video of people in distress. Then they were told to rank each person to indicate how similar the others were to them.

Strayer found the more empathy the children felt for a person in the video, the more similar they rated that person.

"When we are empathetic with somebody, it makes our dissimilarities similar," Strayer concluded.

Once people grasp the scope of this tragedy, it can take an emotional toll, says Butterworth, particularly because, unlike the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, these events were triggered by natural disasters.

"Many people got behind the emotional part of the 9/11 tragedy by getting angry," he said. "[President] Bush got up there at Ground Zero with a megaphone and said we will get them. What do we do when something like this happens -- shake our fist at God?"

One productive thing to do, says Suzanne Brooks, director of the Center for International Disaster Information, based in Washington, D.C., is to give.

"The best way people can help is to make a cash donation to a reliable organization that has people on the ground," she said. "Some may be tempted to send used clothing and bottled water and other supplies, but that is not the best way to help. Relief agencies can get exactly what's needed with cash and get on the ground fast."

As relief agencies report, Americans are doing just that. Butterworth says the donations are a logical -- and heartening -- response.

"It's not like it happened downtown where we can all show up and do something," Butterworth said. "Other than giving, there's not much more we can do. But giving makes you feel a little less helpless."

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