Is It Ever Okay to Disengage When the World Overwhelms Us?


I did not want to read The Letter. I did not feel as brave as the 5 million others around the world who already had read it. And I definitely did not want to waste any emotional energy to read what Dan Turner had to say to excuse his son, Brock, from the brutal crime he committed.

But eventually, I did.

Honestly, I was resistant to read more of the details because I was already feeling too devastated with the little I knew. Even the short blips of information I’d seen on the news and in social media were enough for me to fall into that immobilizing trap of feeling overwhelmed by the whole event. There are too many injustices wrapped up in this one circumstance to absorb:

There’s the injustice of violence against women.
The injustice of male entitlement.
Of the opportunistic rape culture that ignores human decency. 
Of parents who fail to raise their children to be accountable to their actions.
Of a broken criminal justice system that defines the severity of punishment on social class.
Of the unchecked protection of abusers who are white, male, athletic, privileged, and educated.
Of the re-victimization and trauma that the criminal justice system ushers in for victims.
Of deferring responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.

And more … so much more.

I feel helpless. I have no frame of reference to understand that degree of pain.   How on earth has the survivor, her family, and her boyfriend endured not only the assault itself, but the traumatizing aftermath? How can the perpetrator, his father, and the judge live with themselves? How could such a violent crime warrant a disproportionate sentence of only a few months in prison?

Wanting to understand, to explain, to analyze is part of human nature. And so, I thought knowing more details from this case would bring more clarity. Instead, the more I read, the more it created anger and confusion, sadness and shock, bitterness and disillusionment.

I have no right to diminish this event by reducing it to a singular interpretation, but I can tell you there is a strong theme here: we are broken people in a broken world.

Unfortunately, we have fathers in this world who pass off rape as “20 minutes of action” for their son. We have judges who are more fearful about the “severe impact” of a sentencing on the perpetrator rather than addressing the trauma of the victim. We have offenders who distort their crime to avoid responsibility: claiming it was the party that made them make bad choices, or the alcohol that made them aggressive (or, in other cases, that it was the gun that killed the victim, the mental health issue that caused the school shooting, or that God was calling for the terrorist attack).

And then we have survivors who must endure the traumatizing, re-victimizing battle to prove their abuse—while privileged perpetrators barely bat an eyelash as they’re virtually excused from their crime.

We are sick. Our values are distorted. Our relationships are fractured. Our communities are unhealthy.  We are in dire need of redemption.

The details of this event are unique, but the complex ecosystem of injustice is not. I found the same pattern when I was living in Cambodia. There, generational beliefs and ideologies supported the devaluation of women and justified violence against them. Certain public services were reserved exclusively for the elite. Corrupt government officials called the shots. Brokenness in individual people, families, politics, and institutions fuelled violence, labour exploitation, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and other crimes.

The same pattern exists in my home country of Canada. It’s a place where sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and a conglomeration of other factors work together to oppress minorities. In Canada, the third world conditions of First Nations reserves, the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the prevalence of gangs and drug addictions, homelessness and human trafficking are really all just symptoms of the deeper problems of our unhealthiness.

Brokenness is everywhere. It’s on the Stanford campus. It’s in remote Cambodian villages. It’s in Canadian cities. It’s in every corner of the world.

And it makes me feel small.

That’s why I didn’t want to read the survivor’s heart-wrenching letter or know any more details of the ignorant dismissiveness of the perpetrator, his family, or the judge. Because, all too often, I am guilty of trying to take on other people’s burdens as my own.

So, sometimes the coping mechanism I use is to tune out. Disengage. Detach. Disconnect. Pre-emptively let go even before I start carrying the suffering of other people for them.

And you know what? Once in awhile, I think that’s okay.

Maybe that sounds apathetic. Selfish, even. But there’s a difference between willful ignorance and being intentional about taking a step back at times. Being aware of social issues is important, but so is taking care of ourselves. Compassion is fundamental to the human experience, but let’s not confuse empathy with martyrdom.

We can’t avoid or hide. Sometimes, detaching ourselves from distressing news is less about putting up a wall and more about deliberately focusing on the good.

No, I don’t mean sugarcoating people’s suffering—I mean intentionally engaging in the practice of identifying the positive. We can’t devote all our energy to the bad of the world and then have none leftover for other things. Sometimes we need to retreat, breathe, and remember that the weight of the bad does not dismiss the value of the good.

Brock Turner is a criminal and a sex offender—and that SHOULD be our focus, not that he was an All-American swimmer. His actions SHOULD anger and disgust us. We SHOULD resent the situation, because it’s the pinnacle of injustice.  But let’s not forget about the heroes the survivor mentions in her impact statement: the two students who tackled Brock Turner and restrained him until the police arrived. Strangers who stopped a crime, helped a victim, and potentially prevented even greater harm done.

Let’s also not forget it’s actually good news that this case has been on the public pulse for awhile. The outrage from this event reminds me that there ARE people who have souls out there. Action IS being taken: there have been websites launched to remove Judge Persky and petitions to revisit the case. There has been an outpouring of support for the survivor and her family. And all of this draws greater attention to the need for better education about sexual assault and violence, and more conversations about supporting survivors.

The truth is, the evil of the world IS too big for us to comprehend or solve—especially on our own. That’s why we are meant to live in community. That’s why we need to be intentional about identifying the good—not to ignore or dispel suffering and sorrow, but to remember there IS still beauty in the world worth fighting for.