Superficial Empathy and Watching the Afghan Tragedy On the Little Screen

10 minute read
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack

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My living room looks like the staging area for an academic Lollapalooza. I have two children packing for college, so bags and bins and clip-on lamps and awkward plants and guitars and speakers and bundles of sage and humidifiers are piling up. And just like last fall, each kid will bring enough to stuff an entire car like a turducken.

It’s not like we’re unaware of how absurdly fortunate we are even as we slog through this second pandemic year with weary impatience. My children know that in Afghanistan and many other places, they wouldn’t be going to college this fall, they wouldn’t have easy access to vaccines, much less choices about pronouns or their bodily autonomy.

But if we’d forgotten, footage this week out of Afghanistan and Haiti was a blunt reminder. I’ve been watching TV news in tears as women with kids like mine and hundreds of other Afghan families run through the streets of Kabul, pulling small carry-on suitcases behind them, younger kids struggling under backpacks. If they make it into the airport past Taliban gunfire, through barricades that surround the Afghan capital’s airport, and onto one of the Air Force C17 cargo planes, those slight bags will be all they have when they arrive in America or some other country.

And yet, I confess that even with all that was unfurling on the screen, I couldn’t resist picking up my phone and scrolling. And of course, I got distracted by an Instagram ad for big fat sectional sofas or some shirt. And next thing you know, I’d click over to a shopping site, even as the devastating new reports kept coming.

My attention span is now short, shallow, and prone to melodrama. It’s shameful. And every time I realize I’m drifting into trashy contentland at a serious moment, I get a pang and force myself to pull back and see the world with a little more perspective. Then I start searching for ways to help real people in the real world, hoping that a ping from my phone doesn’t reactivate my squirrel mind.

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Trouble is, this quest to keep a perspective rooted in reality is even more complicated after a year during which we’ve all become dependent on digital communications and media for so much more.

The sublime, the absurd, the tragic, and my dog food order all get flattened into the same 2D world. We do everything within our little screens, from seeing a doctor to grocery shopping, to Zooming with relatives and colleagues, to consuming most of our entertainment.

And our lizard brains, craving dopamine and adrenaline as they do, tend to lump together all the different kinds of on-screen emotional jolts. It doesn’t matter whether the hits come from heart-splitting footage of babies in peril, a gossip site, a Twitter outrage thread about governors and anti-mask mandates, overflowing ICU units, photos of your ex’s wedding or pictures of a Kardashian’s ex’s wedding. The world can start to seem like one endless TV series, not quite real.

It’s far too easy to lose your place in the universe, to get soft and self-absorbed, to focus on how upset you were by the sight of those families in the heat of a tarmac far away, instead of seeing them as 3D human beings. In his new book, “Our Own Worst Enemy,” conservative author Tom Nichols argues that this squishy self-absorption is epidemic in the U.S. He’s not entirely wrong. Even if it’s not narcissism, as he posits, there’s a certain numbness that sets in after constant exposure to tragedy, even if it’s only on the TV.

However, America is also a place where people have to mobilize to cover gaps in the safety net, whether it’s an online fundraising drive to help someone pay for a kidney transplant or bake sales for school supplies. It is a place where much of the population has have come from somewhere else with nothing but a suitcase or less. So I don’t believe our collective heart muscle has totally atrophied. As we speak, there are hundreds of volunteers in Washington, D.C. who are putting together apartments with furniture, toys, bedding and welcome signs for Afgan evacuees. (As in the photo below, courtesy of Pandemic of Love. See below for info on how to help.)

So, in my lastest quest to not be so cynical, I’ll get out of my head and support those volunteers, and week, in particular, I wish there’s were something we could do for the Marines who are lifting little children over barbed wire in Afghanistan and grieving for all the children they can’t help. Those men and women will carry the emotional burden of what they’ve witnessed for all of us. It’s not just an upsetting 30-second video clip; for them, it’s real life.

❤️‍🩹 Here are ways you can help people in Afghanistan and earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Plus, how to talk with veterans about the fall of Afghanistan. And see below for ways to support resettled Afghan evacuees in the U.S. via Pandemic of Love. Photo above is courtesy of Pandemic of Love

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No road trips this week, so just one image of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in the early morning light when the grass looks like frayed velvet and the sunrise hasn’t yet burned off.

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“Afghan girls and young women are once again where I have been — in despair over the thought that they might never be allowed to see a classroom or hold a book again,” writes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

😷 How we assess our own COVID-19 risk, plus tips for how to evaluate your fall plans with the Delta variant in mind.

🔥 In With the Olds According to LA Magazine, there’s a new Gray Pride movement taking off as people over 50 gain economic and cultural clout with the help of some famous, barrier-breaking olds.

📽️ LongShots: The 13 new documentaries in the BBC’s online festival allow us to travel the globe virtually. Visit a school for housewives in Iceland, an iconic newsstand in Paris, two canine guardians that watch over the oldest skate park in Santiago, Chile, and much more.

💄 Who needs makeup? The Huffington Post reports that full-face makeup is a thing of the past thanks to the pandemic. And sure, cosmetic sales are down. But the piece also includes these findings from a 2016 study: “conventionally attractive individuals out-earned their peers by about 20%. When researchers started factoring in ‘grooming’ (which, for women, included makeup), the gap narrowed.” One researcher told the HuffPo that managers may be “using women’s use and nonuse of makeup as a way to judge how compliant and committed they are to doing other kinds of work.”

In the good news department…

💵 The US Education Department announced it will cancel $5.8 billion in outstanding student loans for more 320,000 borrowers, including many veterans, who are unable to work due to permanent disabilities.

🧵 For hours each day, these male prison inmates sew personalized quilts for children in foster care. One quilter told the Washington Post he had a new respect for the craft: “I learned quickly that women who have sewn all their lives are mathematical geniuses. It takes a lot of math to calculate your seam allowances.”

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Here’s a reminder that creating a community of generosity elevates us all.


With the rush to evacuate as many at-risk Afghan nationals and special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan as possible, the United States and several other countries will be receiving refugees over the next few weeks.

Already, several hundred families have arrived in the Washington, DC area and organizations like the Lutheran Family Services and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have been putting in place a resettlement process and gearing up to handle the many refugees yet to arrive, many of whom risked their own safety to help American and allied military personnel in Afghanistan.

In support of these organizations, Pandemic of Love will be focusing on two specific efforts: funding permanent housing by paying rents for up to six months at a time and helping to underwrite the cost of furniture and essential items that are needed to start a new life in a new country.

Pandemic of Love has been able to fund rent for 15 families and underwrite the cost of $10,000 worth of furniture in under 72 hours as of August 19. One of the apartments being prepared to welcome an Afghan family in Washington, D.C. is pictured above, and please see information below and at Lutheran Family Services on how you can help.

Anyone living in the D.C. area who would like to donate their time can email details of their availability to the local chapter of Pandemic of Love here: Or go to, select GIVE HELP and share your contact info noting under OTHER that you’re interested in volunteering to help Afghan refugees.

Story and images courtesy of Shelly Tygielski, founder of Pandemic of Love, a grassroots organization that matches volunteers, donors, and those in need.

☝️Check it out: I’ll be leading two creative writing workshops in upstate New York next month with the phenomenal New York Times bestselling novelist Libba Bray. They’re open to all regardless of experience (details here). And they’re just a few of the experiential learning events you can try that weekend.


Our regular acknowledgment of the animals that help us make it through the storm.

Kim shares this photo of Belle who was adopted at Wags Rescue of Feasterville, PA in January of 2020, just before the pandemic. She writes: “Little did we know about what was about to happen… and how grateful we’d be to have this beautiful creature in our lives.”

Send your images to me at, and visit me on Instagram @susannaSchrobs for more.

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