Tuesday’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti has brought out the best in most people (although statements from both Pat Roberston and Rush Limbaugh show it brought out the worst in some). This urge to do good – something we always see in the aftermath of disasters – has me wondering what, exactly, is behind it.
Now, I’m not talking about the “We’re not really that bad” donations from the formerly bailed-out banks, nor the “Maybe we can make a little money off this” efforts by Web sites advertising that if you buy their product, they’ll donate some of the profit to the Haitian cause.
I’m mostly talking about the folks who called radio news talk shows Wednesday, their voices cracking, saying they wanted to go to Haiti, not just send money, that they felt the need to go help RIGHT NOW. They were told to send money because they would only be in the way of the already-there, already-trained relief and rescue workers and medical personnel. (Not to mention the fact that the people there don’t have water and why add your thirsty gullet to the demand?)
No, I’m talking about the common folk who are hosting “Haiti relief” dinners at their homes to collect water and the school children collecting pennies and nickels and the volunteers who are already there and stay to help when the urge surely must be to get the heck out of Dodge. Or even, perhaps, the celebrities starting telethons. What makes those people want to do good? Why do humans have empathy? What evolutionary purpose would it possibly serve if evolution is based primarily on the survival of the fittest? Why wouldn’t people in a poor country just turn on each other in disaster instead of primarily helping each other dig out the dead in hopes of finding the living?
A year after Hurricane Katrina, myself and two other adults took a group of nine 16 to 19 year olds to New Orleans’ devastated Ninth Ward to gut two houses so those homes could be re-habitated by their displaced owners. It was like visiting a ghost town down there in the Lower Ninth, and the only other people we saw were groups like us – youth from various churches across the country who drove hundreds of miles in vans crowded with sweaty teenage flesh to spend a week or two up to their knees in rotten wood, roaches and mildew in the hopes of helping a stranger have a home again.
One evening, so sore from work I could only lift one arm, I called a friend and told him what was happening. I vented about how, a year after the hurricane, the worst-hit part of the city still looked as though Katrina had just hit. I told him what we’d been doing and described how the kids were so exhausted after work that after they “showered” in the water from a hose and changed close, they instantly fell asleep in the living room of the house where we stayed like an exhausted litter of puppies, deaf to the raucous kitchen work of a group of older black women who came to feed them gumbo and jambalya and Kings Cake.
It was ridiculously hard work, I said, but no one was complaining, which, to me, felt somewhat like a miracle. “You’re such a better person than me,” he said, adding that maybe I did good because I’m Catholic.
While its true my faith calls me to acts of mercy, I don’t think that is what made me go to NOLA. Although it cannot be denied that in times of disasters religious folk do seem to show up with water, bandages and homemade pie, I don’t think I went to New Orleans because I heard God’s voice telling me this was the right thing to do. The teens with me didn’t go because they thought God would be mad if they didn’t. We did it because we felt, deep inside, this urge TO GO HELP.
Does that urge only come from God? If you are not religious, do you have that urge to help? If so, how do you help out in your community and to what do you attribute that desire? Post your answers in the comments section. And for further study on the Haiti issue, there’s a pretty decent look at Haiti’s complicated history, at this Wiki, and if you want to know how much the U.S. gives to Haiti in a normal year (the unspoken we-already-do-enough thought behind the ignorant, hateful statements of Limbaugh and Robertson), Nicholas Kistoff has a nice post about that in his On The Ground blog over here.