Too often in life, we take things for granted. We are often too busy staring at our own navel to really appreciate the fact that there are other individuals out there, each with their own challenges and hopes.
In our modern society, we have grown accustomed at dusting off the tip of Maslow’s pyramid when affected by issues such as confidence, esteem or sense of achievement. While these elements are important, and even primordial to our development, working at the Canadian Red Cross brings to the fore at what point we take fundamental needs, such as shelter or food, for granted.
And how easily they can be taken away from us.
Luckily, interacting with individuals affected by disasters brings to light the importance of humanity and its role in reaching out from the depths of everyday indifference to tackle very real and pressing challenges.
Humanity is present to remind us of the importance of human relationships, of a social contract of sorts, which binds us together, willingly or not.
It is the repudiation of the short-term, of blatant individualism, brought about by the values of our capitalist system and often based on immediate value and utility, to the detriment of what makes us human.
It is after all the capacity to build relationships that gives sense to our lives. To get over disagreements and accept the long-term benefits of building and helping, even though sometimes conditions or interests do not seem ripe.
Discussing such a theme brings me to Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and great humanist, and with whose hospital I collaborated with while working in Gabon. He is particularly known for his theory of “Reverence for Life” (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben), which states that, in sum, as living beings we are not only concerned for our own lives and development but also for the lives of other living beings and the environments in which we live. “We are part of life. We are born of other lives; we possess the capacities to bring still other lives into existence.”
While one might consider humanity and ethics to be a result of imposed societal values, Schweitzer argues that they are intrinsic attributes, and are deep within us. He even adds, as opposed to Hume, that they go beyond the range of man and society. All humanity, even animals, arguably can express such “ehrfurcht vor dem leben.”
While not very scientific in nature, to prove his point with regards to animals, he recalls an interesting story: “ a flock of wild geese had settled to rest on a pond. One of the flock had been captured by a gardener, who had clipped its wings before releasing it. When the geese started to resume their flight, this one tried frantically, but vainly, to lift itself into the air. The others, observing his struggles, flew about in obvious efforts to encourage him; but it was no use. Thereupon, the entire flock settled back on the pond and waited, even though the urge to go on was strong within them. For several days they waited until the damaged feathers had grown sufficiently to permit the goose to fly. Meanwhile, the unethical gardener, having been converted by the ethical geese, gladly watched them as they finally rose together, and all resumed their long flight.“
It is about being part of a whole, of one with our surroundings. Of embracing life and all that is around us.
While we are not all born under equal circumstances, each one of us has the capacity to share that glimmer of humanity that shines in each and every one of us to light up other, bleaker horizons.
With humanity we are neither poor nor rich, young nor old.
Once again I turn to Schweitzer when he says: “in everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
Writing from the Red Cross Emergency’s Intervention Unit here in Montreal on a late Monday night, I fully appreciate his words, and also thank all those whom I helped, because they too “rekindled” my inner spirit.
- Albert Schweitzer on the “Sleeping Sickness of the Soul” (fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com)
- Creating a Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management Unit (barryradford.wordpress.com)