Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dead and Dying Thus Around Us

Last month on the St. Austin Review Ink Desk I wrote about "one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen"—and which I saw in, of all places, a train station.

There was a man in his mid forties, bald on top, blue dress shirt, slacks, and tie, briefcase slung over one shoulder—your typical DC professional on his way to some anonymous bureaucratic and probably government office. In his hand was a cup of expensive coffee from one of the local chains. He wasn't rushing for the escalator like all the other commuters, though. He was crouching down, the way you crouch to tie a shoe or talk to a kid—only he was talking to the homeless man who sits at the head of that escalator every morning. (I'm not sure, but I think he's blind.) He—the homeless man—was for once strangely quiet, head tilted toward the office worker, and obviously hanging on his every word. As I passed by the two of them, myself rushing for the escalator (my train had come in late), I heard just one snippet of the office worker's story.

"... so then the Cardinals and the Rays ..."
I concluded, "God bless MLB." Anything, however trivial (quiet, you baseball fans!) that leads people to act charitably deserves heaven's support.
Then there was the car crash that I happened to drive by a few weeks later. No fatalities—at least as far as I could tell—and the immediate response of half a dozen drivers was to pull over, start phoning for help, and check to make sure the car's driver was OK. Within two or three minutes one of these Good Samaritans was standing in the middle of the road directing traffic so that drivers who had not directly witnessed the crash could get by safely.
Humanity! We really are a pretty good species after all, yes?
And then. Just about anyone who watches the daily news and probably a lot of people who don't heard the story. A two-year-old Chinese girl was hit by a truck and lay in the street for seven minutes while more than a dozen pedestrians walked by and around her with hardly a second glance. She died about a week later in intensive care.

"Oh, well," I said. "That's China. They've had a one-child policy for ages. No wonder they've lost respect for human life."

But of course, it's not just China; we hear stories like this at home too, though they are usually not quite so graphically horrific. And abortion is common in the U.S. too—not mandated, but on demand. Connection? Perhaps.

Are these stories the exception, rather than the rule? Is it just another case of bad news makes the news? Are my experiences of elementary decency more indicative of the spiritual state of the vast majority of human beings? I'd like to think so. I would prefer to think that, than to imagine that we are slipping as a society into another dark age.

Maybe it's a comfort, or maybe it's not, but the 20th and 21st centuries hardly have a monopoly on indifference to human suffering. That fact is not a justification for complacency about our culture, but it should be a remedy against despairing of it. We've seen dark times before, when human dignity was undervalued—no, not the Roman Empire, or the days of slavery. I'm thinking of this great scene (starting 1:08) from what is arguably Charles Dickens' greatest novel.

"Dead. Dead, your majesty; dead, my lords and gentlemen; dead, your worships; dead, right reverends of every altar and degree; dead and dying thus around us ... every day."

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