Background Issues

Human beings are drawn to the unusual and sensational.

It’s baked into how we process the world: something that seems to have changed, and which is new and dramatic in some way, will almost always capture our attention and concern more than something expected, ordinary, and casually foreseeable.

This is part of why we’re often negligent when it comes to the maintenance of existing, fundamental, immensely valuable infrastructure, but willing to throw limitless time and money at untested, new whatevers.

It’s why we do research into potential pandemics, but often fail to act upon those possibilities until it’s too late: until the disease has spread far and fast enough to make front-page headlines.

It’s why we’re seemingly comfortable with unequal treatment and outcomes for huge swathes of our populations, as long as those inequalities are kept at a familiar simmer—which makes them no less tragic, no less brutal, no less real, but still somehow more tolerable for our collective psyche.

We’re fortunate that there are people who work, nonstop, to reduce social, economic, and racial inequalities even in the face of denial and pushback, to maintain our roads and bridges and sewer systems despite ever-depleting funding and a dearth of recognition for doing so, and to increase our knowledge of and capacity to handle the most devastating of medical emergencies.

In moments of increased mainstream awareness of our societal missteps and vulnerabilities, then, it’s important that we take stock of these blind spots, these frequently ignored issues that are always there, but which we often only care about in a productive way when things have already gone sideways. Failing to do so makes it far more likely that such disasters will happen again and again, in the future.

We have to fight against our biological reflexes to do this: it’s exhausting to maintain that kind of awareness and sense of responsibility. We’re not wired for it. It’s uncomfortable and a lot less immediately gratifying than participating in a momentum-driven moment.

But lacking such attention, these issues will continue to be issues. They’ll be like water to fish: ever-present, but ignored, unseen, because of their omnipresence.

Bridges will collapse due to a lack of maintenance, pandemics will spread, maim, and kill due to a lack of know-how, collaboration, and resources, and systemic injustices will continue to plague our communities due to warranted concerns that lack consistent attention and followthrough.

The specifics of the issues we each face will be different, depending on who we are, where we live, the time period in which we exist, and so on.

Our individual capacity to influence these circumstances will similarly vary from person to person.

Committing to an awareness of such issues, though, even when they’re not in the news, and even when the solutions are not flashy, exciting, or particularly satisfying unto themselves, is a commitment to slow, steady, across-the-board improvement.

Empathy, generosity, and engagement are commendable traits that are made even more potent and positive when applied persistently, sustainably, and with consideration that extends beyond one-off actions to prioritize the eventual outcomes we’d like to see.

If you enjoyed this essay, consider donating to the Equal Justice Initiative, the ACLU, and/or Campaign Zero.

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