Compassion- does distance equal indifference?


Human bandwidth for compassion is not an infinite resource. Each of us is saddled with a set of problems unique to us- big or small, trivial or catastrophic. Roughed up daily by our personal relationships, our financial status, and our health- both physical and mental. Can’t leave out our workplace which never hesitates to smack us around a bit. We carry some of the collective load of problems faced in our communities, our states, and our nation. And oh yeah–  did I forget to mention the problems associated with this vaxxatious pandemic? (This is my first time writing a blog- am I trying to be too cute with that one?)  Yet despite everything we are faced with day in and day out, the human spirit is willing to take on more struggle. Sometimes we take on our friend’s problems or our family’s problems. Sometimes we take on complete strangers’ hardships and make them our own. At what point are we exhausted of compassionate bandwidth? At the end of the day, I cannot care give energy to all the world’s problems. I have a limit to the number of concerns I can direct my energy at. What I am interested in here is the effects that proximity has on my capacity to care about or give energy to different causes. In my personal experience, the relationship seems to follow a linear pattern- the greater the distance between, the less likely I am to feel empathy or be interested. To witness with your own eyes, however, for that there is no substitute.


2020 was a unique year for nearly the entire world (God bless those Sentinelese Islanders. And still(!!) self-isolation champions of the world). For one country in particular 2020 was a nightmare that just will not end. First, a global pandemic- we all know what that meant for us, so I’ll end the pandemic conversation right here. Then just when things cannot possibly get any worse for them- war. Invasion. On September 27, 2020 Armenia, more specifically Artsakh within Armenia (depending on who you ask), was invaded by Azerbaijan, their neighbor to the east. With the backing of Turkey, a military power and member of NATO who directly and openly funded efforts to wage war on Armenia over the disputed territory and in attacks on civilian populations, Azerbaijan was able to annex large swathes of land from Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, the rest of the world sat idly by with indifference- well not everybody. The Syrian jihadists, excuse me…mercenaries, also found a reason to get off the couch when Turkey offered to pay them to join in the fight.  No doubt the world was preoccupied with a global pandemic and, here in the US especially, a hectic election season. But Armenian people are being killed in scores. A generation of Armenian men were killed in this war, unfortunately many of whom were 18-20 years old. Families’ futures destroyed forever. Civilians being bombed and killed. How can the rest of the world watch these events take place and do nothing?  Because the people being affected by the situation are 6,000 miles on the other side of the planet and as a result of that distance, might as well just be a number in the mind of the unaffected. Oh and they don’t have any oil. Wait, that is probably correct. Our world is an all-you-can-eat buffet of tragedy and inequity. How much should we expect someone to add to their already full plate of personal issues? What is the capacity of human bandwidth for empathy?


Leading up to my departure for Armenia I tried to cram as much information as possible into my brain about the current situation and the history of the country and the region. I read articles and I watched documentaries. I followed countless pages on Instagram- news sources, journalists, locals, American pages with Armenian interests, etc. I followed any account that was putting out current and relevant content. I quickly became interested in the war and the more I learned the more that interest turned into what I would now have to categorize as a naive excitement. I feel like I did a pretty good job getting myself up to speed on the conflict before my departure from the United States.  The war broke out on September 27 and the final peace agreement was signed on November 9. I showed up a few days later, on November 13, to a smoking barrel.

Nothing I could have seen or read on the internet would have prepared me for what I was going to see on the ground with my own eyes. Reality was quick to greet me on the ground- a cold welcome to a new way of living. On my first morning in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, I was invited by a group of four others to accompany them to Yerablur Memorial Military Cemetery. One in our group, Vahagn, lost his father during the war in the 1990’s, while the other three were American Armenians currently living in Yerevan. The band was playing when we showed up. Do you know what it means when the band plays? I didn’t. It means the procession is under way. The funeral service was complete and the caskets were being carried down the hill to their final resting places. The priest had just finished up a service for three soldiers on a Sunday morning. That’s one service for three soldiers because there is not enough time in the day to hold individual services for each fallen soldier. We followed the procession down the hill where soldiers in uniform would fire three shots in unison to honor those being laid to rest. It was a peculiar feeling I got as I walked by the beautiful, well-maintained gravestones and memorials of the heroes who gave their lives 26 years ago only to see the entire hillside open up with more grave sites for more dead soldiers leaving behind more broken families. Still fighting the same battle. My legs turned to jello- I hoped my knees wouldn’t buckle. For an hour I moved around slowly. Observing. Not really knowing what to think or what to do. It was an uncomfortable and somewhat guilty feeling standing among all of these grieving families while I had given nothing and lost no loved ones to this war. The entire mountainside bathed in an air of sadness. I saw countless families standing around the grave of their lost loved one- so fresh it was nothing more than a pile of dirt covered in flowers. In front of me two men, each with a shovel in hand, were covering a casket one scoop of dirt at a time while a crowd stood by watching in silence. Some of the families embraced in hugs. Some mothers wept aloud, others in silence. A father with a tear running down his face stood holding his daughter in his arms as she grieved for her brother. For 20 minutes I watched a girl sit on the edge of a grave, one hand on the headstone, not moving. Mourning the loss of her loved one. She will never see him again. Now, do you see?

oved one at Yerablur Memorial Military Cemetery

IV. Two days later, I rented a car in an attempt to gain access to Nagorno-Karabakh (that’s another name used interchangeably with Artsakh from above). I was successful in that endeavor and had the fortunate opportunity to drive all the way from Goris to Stepanakert, on to Dadivank, and ultimately ending up in Vardenis over a couple days. The route from Goris to Stepanakert is an essential roadway, a mountain pass known as Lachin corridor. A traveler who made the same trip as I only 2 months prior would not have recognized it as the same road on November 18, the day I made the trip. The road I traveled on was under an ominous blanket of fog. Visibility was minimal and danger lurked in the unknown. During the war military personnel traveling through Lachin were vulnerable to air attack and so the road sustained a considerable amount of damage. At one point I had to navigate around a SMERCH rocket that had perfectly embedded itself into the road. Unfortunately, I was not able to stop at that time to take a picture but I managed to find a picture of the very rocket online which I have included below. On November 18, Lachin corridor was under control of the Russian peacekeepers (HA!) who were sent to prevent further escalation of hostilities between the two warring sides. Sandbag barriers, bunkers, tanks, artillery, infantry, checkpoints. A foreign military super power mobilized to Armenia reportedly in order to keep the peace and save lives. A foreign military super power that happens to be very nearby and one which stood by doing nothing until the moment came when it could leverage the situation to benefit from the agreement. I saw this with my own eyes. Eventually, I ended up in Stepanakert, the most populous city in Artsakh- typically a town of 55,000 inhabitants. Under attack for weeks by artillery shells, bombers, and weaponized drones. The Stepanakert I rolled into was a foggy, beatdown, desolate place. Most of the local citizens had fled. Many of the buildings were damaged- large chunks of the city were completely leveled. The next day I drove from Stepanakert to Dadivank and through Kalbacar. For four hours Mother Earth flexed her beauty so hard. A captivating display of mountainous charm. Towering stone rock faces rising straight up from the shoulder of the road. The Terter river winds alongside the road- a gentle but persistent flow at work for thousands of years cutting a magnificent gorge into the mountains. Late autumn trees holding on to their last remaining golden leaves. One of the most spectacular drives of my life. And what awaited me on the other side of the gorge? Woeful desertion. Inhabitants fled after the war- leaving behind their entire lives. Leaving behind their belongings, their homes, their land, their markets, their friends, their families, their communities. Their comfort and familiarity. Hopefully not their dignity. Infrastructure intentionally destroyed so as to not be used when the enemy moves in to occupy their homes. I try to imagine the feeling that must come over one when told “You must move out of your home. In fact, you have to leave this entire region. And when you’re gone, your property will be handed over. Everything you ever worked to build, the home where you raised your kids will be given away or destroyed.” Do you know how the people in Kalbacar responded? They burned their own homes to the ground, in defiance, before leaving. They will never see their homes again. Now do you see?


It felt right to me that I should again visit Yerablur on my final day in Armenia lest I forget the feelings that washed over me on my first visit to the cemetery just sixteen days before. This time I went alone- sitting in silence on the hillside among the newly dug graves. I wanted to see one more time, with my own eyes, the nightmare that the Armenian people cannot wake up from. I try to imagine what this hillside looked like just sixty-five days earlier, but it doesn’t matter because the fact is it will never look the same. I refer back to videos from my first visit so I don’t have to imagine- nope, I am not imaging this. Fresh grave sites have enveloped the hillside, nearly doubling the total from just over two weeks prior. Above me on the hill, the old graves feel symbolic. Heroes to be honored and respected. A reminder of a hardened grief felt for two decades. The hill below me feels raw.  Nothing pretty or elegant about it. All I see is sadness. Raw grief.

Next to me, an old man was pouring concrete slabs to support the newest tier of the fast growing cemetery. I just couldn’t help but wonder if this same man poured the concrete for these boys’ father’s graves, sitting just above us on the hill, only 26 years ago. It is not likely but the fact that it very well could be possible gave me an uneasy feeling. Several families below me on the hill are here tending to the burial sites. Landscaping. I wondered how a parent decides how they will decorate their son’s grave?  I tried to imagine what these people were feeling. I really tried and all I could come up with was a few words that I thought might be used to describe their pain. It’s impossible- it is impossible for me to even begin to imagine. Then, for the first time at Yerablur, I saw a man smile.


War is real. Real people, shedding real blood, giving real lives, defending real homes. It all felt so real to me. Even if I was watching on the jumbotron outside the stadium it felt like I was at the game. Of course, there is no substitute for being in the stands and certainly nothing can compare to being in the trenches. But it is impossible for the guy at home on his couch to care as much about the game as the guy on the field (hold your fantasy football comment right there).  Hell, most of the world doesn’t even know the game is on, so it’s no surprise that they stood by as this small nation of people was attacked and invaded by richer, more powerful nations. How can a person be expected to care about something they don’t know exists? How can a person be expected to care when thousands of miles of physical distance separates them from the cause? How can a person be expected to care when there is no spiritual or emotional bridge to connect them with the cause? But I saw their pain. I heard their pleas. I felt it in my heart at Yerablur most of all.

Then I pushed abort. All the sudden I was 6,000 miles on the other side of the world. I got to decide when I would wake up from their nightmare. I could choose to come and go as I wished. Now I am back in my cozy routine and the war that felt so real is out of sight, out of mind. Proximity and first hand witness provoke inflamed visceral emotions while increased distance creates boundaries to our most intimate emotions. I started this post by claiming that compassion is not an infinite resource but it’s not that I am not concerned with Armenia’s struggle anymore. I care for the people affected and will continue to help out in the ways that I can. Only now, I am back to my own reality and have my troubles to tend to. I often find myself wondering, as a human of this world, how to create more compassionate bandwidth. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when we have our own problems to attend to, when we show concern for those around us, and when we feel the need to show compassion to ‘thems’. If I give energy here I won’t have energy to give there. Is it not natural for us to choose our surrounding environment to nurture before we can give energy to unfamiliar causes? After all, it is when we are in close proximity to something that we are really able understand what others are going through. When we see with our eyes and experience with our other senses then compassion comes easily. But what about when we can’t see, when the distance is too far, when the problem isn’t our own, when the people affected are not ‘us’ but ‘them’? To transcend those barriers and act compassionately does not come easily, but the world benefits when we manage to do so.

Armenian soldiers defending a mountain pass in the Kalbacar region.