The famous 19th century author Henry David Thoreau once proclaimed, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” While I disagree with Thoreau on the point that humans crave reality, I will not dispute the fact that reality itself is inescapable, be it, as he noted, “life or death.”
Last August was the month of a family trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, where we spent a week wandering the cliffs of the island and watching brilliant sunsets bathe the world in color. We stayed in a rustic house we had rented, surrounded only by forest. We were isolated from the rest of the world for one wonderful week.
This is a lie. A person cannot be isolated while he is still breathing the same air as the rest of the world is, looking at the same scenery that thousands of humans before him have observed. It would seem that with only the deep blue waves of the Atlantic below granite cliffs to occupy my attention, I would be safe from reality. This wasn’t so – it is never so, I realized. News of the real, violent world managed to cling to my conscious and float in with the tide. While my father checked the weather report on the tiny 13-inch television upstairs one evening in the house we rented, a news anchor’s voice drifted down from the loft and to my ears, reporting a news-breaking terrorist attack plan that had been foiled just 48 hours from its initiation. Had it occurred, ten Trans-Atlantic planes would have been hijacked and blown up over the Atlantic Ocean on their way from London to New York. Each jet carries up to 500 passengers, putting the number of civilians that were nearly killed at 5000. 5000 innocents almost sunk into the very ocean that I had dipped my toes into earlier that day.
I recognized something that night that scared me – no one is safe from the world. We are all connected to it, no matter how remote we may wish we were. A vacation from work, school, and home will never be a vacation from pain or terror as long as the world remains as it is currently. And while one family is off enjoying a scenic trip, there is always another in the world grieving for a loved one lost to violence, hatred, confusion, and fear. And in that second, we are all connected by something deeper than physical relations; in that instant, we are connected by humanity. And I believe that the moment that we become connected to someone we have never met and probably will never meet, we become responsible for him or her.
Since violence and fear are two of the only current constants in this world, the responsibility that we each hold for others is immense. I am responsible for the old woman with the wrinkles etched in her face turning downward as she silently grieves at a refugee camp in Darfur. I am responsible for the scarred face and lonely eyes of the child living on the streets of São Paulo. I am responsible for the savagely bloodied, bruised woman trying to peacefully protest against the death penalty in China. I am responsible for the little Muslim boy staring in shock at a blood-spattered floor while the adults surrounding him try to shield his eyes. I am responsible for these strangers whom I will never meet, whose stories I will never learn, because I am human.
I am not sheltered, nor can I ever be sheltered, from the world as it is now. Until something – anything – changes for the better, I am accountable for the people around the world, just as they are accountable for me. It is up to me, to everyone, to help those who require aid, to sympathize with those who are filled with grief, to blame only ourselves when something horrible happens across the world. Because it is up to us to protect every newborn baby, every old man, every mother, every child. I realize that few people actually recognize their responsibility, but it is there. Always there, lingering in the background of our happiness. Because there is no such thing as isolating ourselves from reality. That I believe. Because as long as we are human, we are responsible for every other person on the planet. That I believe.
Because we all owe a debt to humanity just for being alive. That I believe.
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