Monday, August 15, 2011
Life is Not Fair!
When we are moved, we often give. Americans gave more than $1.4 billion for relief and recovery in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake and a combined several billion dollars after the 2004 “Boxing Day” tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. We also gave several billion dollars after the attacks in 2001.
In response to a much less severe but still heart-wrenching tragedy, Indiana residents are grieving for five dead and scores injured after a temporary stage collapsed in a windstorm at our State Fair.
My initial response, on hearing the news, is “Where do I give memorial contributions?”
But WHY do I and so many others want to give money, or teddy bears, or water and other essentials when we hear of a tragedy?
Twenty years ago, I heard a phrase to describe philanthropy: “Money is me where I cannot be.” I associate it with a Lutheran bishop, but I am not sure why. Maybe you know? Whoever said it first, it captures perfectly my response. I cannot literally reach out to the survivors, the victims’ families, the witnesses and others directly affected by the events of Saturday night, but I can give a little as an expression of my empathy.
I think that is why we (and people around the world) GIVE in response to disaster. This is not strategic philanthropy to bring out widespread social change. This is not a steady series of contributions to support an organization’s operations or to make a statement about our personal values.
A gift after a disaster is a metaphorical embrace when you know someone else is in great pain.
Bob Payton, first full-time director of the Center on Philanthropy, called the study of philanthropy a study of the “social history of the moral imagination.” The sign of an active moral imagination is being able to feel what we think others feel in response to a shock or to joy.
Humans are not the only species to feel empathy (see Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society); however we are the species in which empathy has been extensively studied. There is no one answer about the origins of empathy, or whether it is learned or in-born (or some of each), although the complete absence of empathy is one trait of a psychopath.
To the extent that we are moved to share joys and pains of our friends or even of those distantly connected to us, we are expressing our humanity – you could even say, we express our humaneness. I have not yet found a site to make memorial contributions for the five who died from injuries sustained Saturday. But I want to because it is one of the only ways I—as a stranger—can say to their families: we share your sorrow.
If you know anyone affected by Saturday's tragedy, please comment with the first name, so that readers can keep these people in their prayers and thoughts. Thank you.