Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. — Dr. Seuss
My jaw hung down in disbelief. New images of the cataclysm were pouring in faster than the tsunami had deposited cars on top of buildings. The latest video depicted a house being swept away in a torrent that had, only moments before, snapped a yacht in half. I clicked to enlarge a photo of a young woman looking stunned between mounds of detritus, broken pieces of homes.
Despite the visual information coming at me, my understanding of the devastation in Japan was abstract. It was something I was “told” and then “shown” had happened. Aside from the empathy I experienced when viewing footage of the rushing water, the crushed buildings, and the distraught faces, the terrible event and its immediate aftermath had no tangible effect on me.
All I had to do to make it go away was close my laptop.
The universe had come crashing to a halt for the people in Japan, but — as evidenced from the headlines on CNN — the rest of the world was carrying on as usual. Directly under the article about residents fleeing Tokyo to avoid radiation from nuclear plant meltdowns was a “Latest News” piece: according to one of her recent tweets, it seemed Lindsay Lohan had had an anxiety attack.
Unable to consider the trivial in the shadow of tragedy, I went back to clicking through images. A man’s face contorts in emotion as he is reunited with his dog. Two hands, each attached to a different corpse, reach from beneath a pile of rubble. The word “heartbreaking” was used in most of the captions. And it was.
When a tsunami struck Thailand in 2004, the images on TV roused my friend Skye to action. I remember my surprise when she announced she was going to go there to help newly orphaned children. None of my friends had ever done more than talk about how awful and sad things were abroad — AIDS in Africa, the massacre in Rwanda; these were wrecked people and places to be discussed and lamented, not visited. Part of me thought Skye was insane, but most of me was envious of her gallantry.
When Katrina hit New Orleans the following year, my friends Steve and Jen (who live in Massachusetts) launched a rebuild campaign. They raised funds back home and visited the city as often as possible. Everyone else seemed more angry at the Bush administration than they were sympathetic toward the victims of the hurricane.
Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. It happened a month after the one in Chile, which was of a greater magnitude, but no one seemed too worried about the Chileans — their structures were sound, and their government’s emergency strategies were tight. Whereas the quake in Chile had killed hundreds, the quake in Haiti had killed hundreds of thousands.
Haiti had been long screwed over — slavery, poverty, government corruption, the only heinous thing that seemed to be missing from Dante’s checklist was genocide. But all that horrendousness had been going on for years. There had been no outpouring of money from wealthier nations, no global outrage at the conditions. Each country had its own shit to worry about. But a sudden natural disaster in such an already helpless nation, combined with the unnerving realization that we are, each of us, this planet’s bitch and not the other way around, seemed to splinter apathy worldwide.
My friend Leslee — the quintessential bleeding heart — had been trying for months to figure out a way to get to Haiti so she could help on the ground level. A few days after news of the tsunami in Japan, I asked her if she felt any impulse to go help there.
“I think the reason I’m more prone to go someplace like Haiti is because they are so absolutely destitute — and they were destitute to begin with,” Leslee said. “They were making some progress in Haiti, and this just ripped away all of that progress. They’re living in tents now — Japan hasn’t had a chance to build a tent city — most of the people who lived within those regions are probably gone.”
Leslee loses sleep thinking of ways she can make the world a better place. I was surprised that an environmentally conscious person whose default emotion is empathy had not felt compelled to visit a needy country before Haiti. Leslee explained, “When Haiti happened, I was struck like I’d never been struck personally. I think it was because of the level of unsafety for women and children — there was sexual violence, they had to bathe in public in those tent cities. There was no humanity, and it just really, really struck me.”
On the first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, a reporter named John Donvan did a story for ABC News about how the spotlight of human attention shifts from one disaster to another. Donvan explained how images of suffering children were more likely to spark a surge in donations than images of suffering adults. I wondered if this was because we’re wired somehow to help the helpless — nothing is more vulnerable and dependent than a child.
People tend to be happy when they’re helpful. My father is never more fulfilled than when he’s working with kids through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, donating blood to the San Diego Blood Bank, delivering meals for Special Delivery, directing people at the airport, or making children smile at the orphanage in TJ. Every time a natural disaster occurs, Dad immediately donates whatever he can to the International Salvation Army.
My donating is more sporadic. Whereas most of my friends “think globally and act locally,” I tend to think locally and act on occasion when the opportunity presents itself. I tend to volunteer when I find the work both rewarding and fun. I’m sure Leslee’s work in Haiti will fulfill her, but it sounds more heart-wrenching and punishing than anything close to “fun.”