DISTANCE AND TIME: THE FADING OF EMPATHY

G-30-S

I always thought that the 30th of September would be a date that would continue to evoke a sense of tragedy in the hearts of all Indonesians. Whatever one accepts as the true version, or even if one can’t fathom any form of truth about what happened 44 years ago, the sheer volume of blood spilled is spine chilling enough and the number of lives shattered or ruined is staggering enough to give one pause, no matter how remote in time it now is.

It so happens this night was the birthday of an old friend who passed away earlier this year. It was also this same night that a major earthquake destroyed the lives of many people in West Sumatra.

And earlier last night, when it still was the 30th, I was shocked, I am not sure why, by the reaction of a young guest from Jakarta staying with us. When I somberly mentioned , admittedly late in the day, that it was the 30th of September, my guest made a silly joke about it, too banal to relate here.

For me G30S, as it is known to us Indonesians, has a very personal aspect – our next door neighbor when I was a boy was one of the generals taken and murdered that night. Our families were friendly. His sons were my friends. Countless others throughout the archipelago lost dear ones, had their lives shockingly disrupted and twisted by the events of that night and the dark days that followed.

But now I must acknowledge that for those who weren’t born yet or whose lives weren’t directly touched, the impact of this event has been dampened not only by time but also by an almost cynical sense of resignation that they may never find out the real truth about what happened that night and in the following months. So I am not sure whether I am shocked that perhaps for this girl’s generation it has lost some of its significance because they have either given up hope of ever uncovering the truth, or because it simply really isn’t that relevant to them.

And I am surprised at my reaction too. After all it is the way life is. For someone who wasn’t even born yet, for the most part the only relevance it has is because they have been told (whichever version). For instance I don’t make light of the Holocaust, but it certainly doesn’t affect me as deeply as those who survived it.

But in this case because these were ‘my people’ and in my lifetime, I felt particularly taken aback by the incident. Part of me lamented what I perceived as a lack of empathy (which of course is my own perception, she might very well just have made a nervous exclamation!).

Though I certainly don’t joke about the Holocaust, I can be “objective”. At times I have even reminded some of my Jewish friends that many other people have suffered genocide, as I feel those killed by the Khmer Rouge, Hutus/Tutsis, Serbs/Bosnians, etc should be remembered as well and profoundly. But I can’t be sure whether I say that out of so called objectivity or whether it’s from the depths of my heart.

What this shows me about myself and my fellow men is that we don’t learn well from experience. We feel the pain when it happens to us, but often little empathy for other who experience suffering. Yet empathy is one of the most important of human emotions, without it we will not survive as a race.

In reality what has happened to the Jews, the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Tibetans, the Indonesian communist suspects of ‘65 who were hunted down like dogs, and too many others – all this has happened to us, these are all our people.

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