A few days ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted a video of a Texas detention center housing apprehended migrants at the U.S. border. Inside massive enclosures made of chain-link fencing, children sat shoulder to shoulder, huddled in fear. Many had been torn from loved ones—in April and May, the government separated almost 2,000 children from immigrant parents, most as a result of the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy regarding unsanctioned border crossings. Then the investigative journalism site ProPublica posted audio from inside an immigrant detention facility. “We have an orchestra here,” one border patrol agent deadpanned, as children wailed for their missing parents.

The firsthand evidence of what was happening horrified me. Yet to my dismay, my brain kept manufacturing reasons not to act. Call my senators? I thought. That won’t do any good. And I’m not sure what else to try. Then there was the all-purpose lament that came back to me like a refrain. Nothing I do is going to change the outcome, so why bother? As I scanned my social media feeds, it was clear I wasn’t the only one feeling jaded and overwhelmed. “I fear that I am not doing enough to turn the tides,” one commenter wrote. “Sickened and feel utterly helpless,” someone else chimed in.

A girl and her father rally for immigration reform in Washington, D.C. A girl and her father rally for immigration reform in Washington, D.C.

Most of us want to believe that when we face character-defining moments, we’re going to rise to the challenge and act decisively to help those in trouble. In everyday life, though, it’s easy to let self-doubts, apathy, and mental clutter muddle our response to the surrounding moral landscape—whether it includes unjust discrimination, corrupt institutional culture, or innocent children detained without their families.

Keeping some psychological distance from current events is prudent: It’s what allows us to go on about our lives when the world seems to be spinning off-axis. Taken too far, though, this self-protective impulse can curdle into inaction—and, eventually, into regret at not having done more. Finding the right balance involves noticing when mental paralysis starts to creep in and working to overcome it. That frees you to take action, however humble, in the face of the problem.

It’s a good thing many of us didn’t listen to the despairing, do-nothing voices in our heads when news broke of how immigrant kids were being treated. The public outcry forced the Trump administration to formally end the policy—though it remains to be seen what the new policy will look like or when children will be reunited with their parents. Still, this victory reminds us of an important lesson: When we do act and speak out, it makes a difference.

What stops us from acting?

Hurl enough weight at a building and it’s likely to topple, no matter how sturdy its structure. Something similar happens in our minds when we’re bombarded with news of problems that seem too big for us to handle. When story after story features human suffering on a large scale, the temptation to shut it all out mounts.

It’s no surprise to Paul Slovic that so many of us feel so overwhelmed in response to the current border crisis. Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist, has devoted years to studying what motivates people to act in the face of injustice—and, just as importantly, what demotivates them. In a series of canonical studies, Slovic demonstrated that as people were exposed to more and more children in dire straits, they became less and less inclined to help them. Slovic calls this kind of emotional distancing “psychic numbing,” and it discourages us from getting involved in problems that seem too outsized or intimidating. We are more intuitively responsive to stories of individuals in crisis—precisely the kinds of stories that are hard to come by due to limits authorities have placed on detention center access. “There are things officials are doing to reduce the emotional impact,” Slovic says. “They’re basically blocking information that would be emotionally upsetting.”

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