A column I don’t feel bad writing

By Amy Allen

At the beginning of a new year, many people resolve to stop doing things that make them feel guilty, such as polishing off a quart of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey in one sitting or spending two hours on Facebook right before an exam.

I’m certainly hoping to do less of those two things, but the experience that gives me the most guilt is one I can’t easily resolve away, and that is reading the newspaper. By the time I get to the closing paragraph of an article about child prostitution in Cambodia or Afghani girls attacked with acid on their way to school, the guilt is begins to creep in.

Who am I to sit in a warm house noshing on Twix bars and pretzels while young women sold into sexual slavery in Phnom Penh are punished with electric shocks for not smiling at their captors?

I read that particularly disturbing detail in a column by Nicholas Kristof on New Year’s Day about Somaly Mam, an activist who had escaped from forced prostitution and works to free others. I always thought that the greatest form of torture would be to be a reporter covering heart-wrenching stories like these, to be so close to the suffering, and yet so far from being able to do anything directly to address it.

But Kristof did something important to address the issue of child prostitution by writing his column and giving me a dose of New Year’s guilt. To be sure, there is no direct relationship between the lives of relative luxury led by most newspaper readers and the suffering of those they read about, but inspiring awareness of that disconnect, even for a moment, is a powerful thing.

Although most people don’t relish the feeling they get after wasting valuable studying time on Facebook or setting yet another empty ice cream container in the sink – and I don’t particularly relish the feeling that washes over me after reading a column like Kristof’s – the fact that we feel guilty after doing these things is a positive sign.

Recognizing that what you’ve done is wrong is a necessary step in changing that behavior, and guilt can be a powerful incentive to make that change. In my case, that happens to mean doing more of what makes me feel guilty because what makes me feel guilty isn’t reading the newspaper itself, but the injustice and inequality that the newspaper articles expose.

The fact that I feel a sense of shame or guilt when I read about the things people, such as Somaly Mam, have endured also reassures me that I haven’t yet become inured to reading about other people’s suffering.

Parent groups warn about how playing violent video games repeatedly can cause young people to become desensitized to violence, but reading about violence and suffering every day in the news can have the same distancing effect. Part of it is necessary in order for us to be able to carry on with our daily lives in the wake of terrible events occurring around the world. But even if we aren’t directly to blame, it doesn’t hurt to feel a few pangs of guilt for all the suffering and injustice in the world that no one has atoned for.

While I can’t change my economic status or switch places with those suffering injustice in other parts of the world, I can use the guilt I feel after reading about them as an incentive to try to do something to alleviate their suffering.

This is one new year when I won’t be browsing the guilt-free style or business sections of the paper, hoping for something that doesn’t make me tremble with sadness after reading it.

I’ll be heading straight for section A1 with its stories on conflict in Sudan, rising C02 emissions and human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, ready to confront my guilt head on.

Amy is a freshman in math with a minor in Facebook and newspaper reading.