by Anthony Cossette
Death is a word everyone shudders at the thought of, yet isn’t too comfortable speaking about until tragedy strikes. Yet we are reminded of its presence everywhere, especially in the news media: just this past week the typhoon in the Philippines took thousands of lives and wrought a tremendous amount of suffering on the survivors. Despite the laudable efforts of countless organizations providing material and psychological relief for the Filipino populace, is it only when responding to a natural disaster or being moved by personal or societal tragedy that we transform into generous saints within a world of pernicious and persistent income disparity, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor?
In spite of the overly dismal message presented, there is some evidence to suggest that humans are endowed with the innate desire to help, especially in times of great need. A scientific study conducted by Yiyuan Li and colleagues found that children who lived through the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China altered their levels of altruism in response to this event — that is, 9 year-old children (but not 6 year-old children) were willing donate more items to an anonymous recipient after the earthquake than before, suggesting that the normal developmental trajectory for humans is to be altruistic . However, after a certain period of time, the levels of giving in children, as in adults, fall back to their baseline levels. Normalcy returns for a little while until another round of biosocial pressures requires collective crisis management.
Besides the purely natural causes of death that are bound to happen each year, such as disease and natural disasters (though I would not be surprised if ¬manmade climate change were a factor in increasing the probable occurrence of the latter), most of the problems we experience on this little blue marble of ours can only be attributed to us. I speak of war, crime, poverty, political, and social instability. Any sane and caring human being would wish to overcome these vexing problems plaguing the world, but it seems that barely anyone has ever come up with comprehensive and workable solutions. For instance, consider the $615.1 billion that the United States Department of Defense could theoretically spend on the military in the next fiscal year . Certainly, the amount of money in question is unfathomable, but our government (with the compliance of the other so-called “developed” nations), has continually allocated nearly a quarter of its operating annual budget to the upkeep of soldiers, weapons, and paraphernalia that serve no purpose other than to kill human beings. If only that money could be strictly devoted to something useful — feeding, clothing, and sheltering all people, regardless of income, race, gender, creed, nationality, and other artificial and needless divisions we create for ourselves in this society — would make conditions more tolerable for many people. This need not be dreams of impractical idealists so much as they could be ambitious but worthwhile initiatives to plan and act upon.
Considering these global issues serves as a stark reminder of the fleeting and transitory nature of life itself — and, ultimately, of our own mortality. Questions of money, hierarchy, rank, socioeconomic class, and all the rest of the superficial boundaries that adversely separate us from one another become irrelevant in the context of human suffering and in the face of impending death. That is why the second is often known as the “Great Equalizer” since we all share same fate and our physical possessions will not accompany us once our dying day looms. Therefore, we should focus on what matters most and unites humanity in this life, echoing what poet William Cullen Bryant wrote in the early 19th century:
[…] and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.
I encourage all readers to take the time to read up on the major relief efforts in the Philippines by major humanitarian organizations and contribute even just a small amount to help our neighbors across the big blue pond.