Humbled By Nature, Humans Give

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 23, 2011

Nature humbles us. No matter our modernity, or lack of it, we remain powerless to its forces. No matter our nationality, our religion, our race, our gender: Nature does what it does, frighteningly, often fatally, but with no little grandeur.

A year ago, a 7.0 earthquake rocked the Republic of Haiti. Its tremors collapsed countless buildings; rescue workers dug frantically through the rubble in search of trapped survivors. Depending on the counter, between 92,000 and 316,000 Haitians perished. Another 300,000 suffered injuries, and as many as 1.8 million were left homeless.

As I write, Japanese authorities have reported 4,277 dead, with a estimated total of 12,000 dead and missing. A9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami caused the horror.

In days past, television news has made us all witnesses to the power of those waves: the ships ripped from their moorings; trucks, buses and cars tossed about like toys; commercial buildings and homes collapsed and swept inland.

Japan is, of course, one of the world’s wealthiest and most-advanced nations. Haiti one of its poorest. Yet nature shows neither respect for wealth nor mercy for poverty.

But we do. In January 2010, the international community rushed food, medicine and temporary shelters to Haiti. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton traveled to the island nation to assess the progress of the aid missions. Citizens across the globe sent checks, large and small, to the Red Cross, CARE, Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health - to scores of nonprofit aid organizations that were rushing to the scene.

A year later, as Japan struggles to bring their nuclear power plants under control and to house and feed their homeless, we reach out again. Governments, international aid organizations and individuals offer money, manpower and machines to meet the crisis.

We respond because the enormity of nature’s power to destroy forces us back on our common humanity. Our behavior at these moments heartens us, sometimes to the point of self-congratulation.

Then we forget - we forget and revert to the indifference that so often marks our everyday lives, lives without television scenes of unfolding catastrophe to remind us of the necessity that we act.

The homeless camp on our beaches, our sidewalks and in our parks for years, and we nod our heads in agreement with politicians who would do little save cite them for laziness, craziness or addiction.

We look on in horror - and respond - as tsunamis and earthquakes wreak devastation around the planet, but we shrug when the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists warn of the effects of global warming on the planet. Never mind the Pacific coastlines that will be inundated, including our own, and the Pacific islands that will disappear. We will listen instead to the political entertainers of the right who tell us that global warming is a myth. We will have no part of global treaties that would compel an American to sacrifice anything.

We rush food and economic aid around the globe to those victims of natural catastrophe, but when the Great Economic Recession of 2008 results in unemployment, foreclosure and want for 10 percent of the nation’s work force, a catastrophe of our own heedlessness, we condemn every significant effort to deal with it, dismissing them as socialism.

And while we ship medical supplies, doctors and nurses to a quake-ravished Haiti, we take our national government to court to stop it from insuring health care to all of our nation’s citizens.

Nature humbles us, and it frequently elicits from us what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

If only those angels abided with us every day, in the face of more mundane, but no less catastrophic events.

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