Can you relate?
You have probably seen some of the immense publicity devoted worldwide to the terminally ill British infant, Charlie Gard.
Charlie was born with a rare genetic condition that has, in his 11 months of life so far, made him blind, deaf, subject to seizures, and caused irreversible brain damage. He cannot breathe without the aid of a ventilator.
There are no known treatments for his condition, no prospect of reversing any of the damage, and only the vaguest promise of help through an experimental treatment proposed by an unnamed American doctor who admits the treatment has never been tried on any living thing.
And yet, the story of Charlie has generated huge interest worldwide, and his parents’ plea for financial help has generated nearly $2 million in contributions through social media.
One of the reasons Charlie’s situation has proven so compelling is that the case pits his parents again the British hospital that wants to disconnect life-support. British courts will ultimately determine what treatment, if any, he gets.
So Charlie’s situation certainly raises difficult questions about who gets to make life-and-death medical decisions for incapacitated patients, who may choose to try experimental treatments, who pays for all this, and many other important issues.
But the question I want to ask is simply this: Why is Charlie’s case such a lightning rod for attention and money when there are — right now — literally hundreds of thousands of children fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, living in refugee camps if they’re lucky, drowning in the sea as flimsy boats capsize, if they’re not.
And what about the thousands of Central American children risking their lives to enter America illegally to escape poverty and crime, not to mention the thousands of American-born children who go to bed hungry each night?
Do our sincere feelings about Charlie, and even our generous online donations to his cause, appropriately salve our consciences for all the other children (not to mention their parents and grandparents) whose survival presents an equally urgent concern?
History has certainly shown us that individuals are far better able to focus on, and identify with, a single person than a mass of humanity.
We grieve for Anne Frank, while we barely consider the rest of her family, much less the millions of others who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators during WWII.
Yes, we cringe at the memory of nearly 1 million Tutsis massacred in Rwanda in 1994, and the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who died of starvation or disease in Darfur between 2003 and 2010.
We tell ourselves “never again.” We won’t let man’s inhumanity to man succeed on this scale again.
And yet, the only cause that really generates wide public discussion and practical action is the one we can relate to personally: the individual, especially a helpless infant.
In part, this may well be human nature. While our hearts go out to a fellow human being in pain, we are simply not capable of grasping the nature or magnitude of suffering on an immense scale.
Another reasonable explanation is that we know our assistance might be able to “make a difference” to one or two people in need. How and what can we do as individuals to help a thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?
The scale is so huge as to overwhelm us and make us retreat into our comfortable lives rather than even imagine what it would take to address the problem.
I understand all this. I am no different. I am not in any way trying to cast blame on others. Most of us are guilty of this reasoning. If it’s indeed human nature, how could it be otherwise?
But I am disturbed to realize that many of us seem to be more ready and willing to put ourselves out even for a hopeless cause, such as Charlie’s, rather than for, say, a teenager who could go on to live a full life if she could just cross the sea, or the border, or the fence, or even just get regular meals and an education.
There is so much need out there, it is easy to succumb to inaction. But when a case like Charlie’s comes up, it should remind us that we are ultimately all family, that each of us is our brother’s keeper, and that we needn’t look far to find a situation where each of us could extend a hand and make a difference.
Let each of us pledge to do what we can, on any scale, to make the world a better place by devoting some of our time or money to a needy individual or worthy cause. The opportunities for doing good are almost endless.