How far does compassion extend? 


It’s been more than a month since that fateful day in Haiti, when a 7-magnitiude earthquake struck havoc and unimaginable devastation.

I’m sure that much has happened in our lives over the last month; in Haiti, however, it probably seems as if one tragic day has been drawn out.

Once-magnificent buildings stand in crumbled ruins as a glaring reminder of the utter destruction wrought on one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere.

They also serve as a metaphor for the human toll of the disaster — the physical ruins are, in a way, an embodiment of the prevalent emotional despair.

It is estimated that around 200,000 people have died, with most of the deceased unceremoniously dumped in mass graves. Photographers have attempted to capture the horror as images from our computers project construction machines picking up bodies strewn over the streets and piling them up one on the other.

It’s times like this that shock our sense of humanity and prompt it to action. We realize that no matter how bad our economy is, no matter how unfortunate our personal circumstances, there are people suffering pain unrivaled to ours.

We find ways to give, even if the purse-strings are tight.

Recovery for the Haitians, in the physical, mental and emotional sense, has a long way to go.

While times like this demonstrate the compassion of the people in wealthier countries, it shouldn’t be extended to the first couple weeks following a disaster. Our compassion and giving should be sustained for as long as it is needed.

When natural disasters of this enormity strike, they capture the world’s attention. Everyone is in a rush to make pledges of assistance and aid. For example, in the aftermath of the earthquake, we saw countless putting their cell phones to good use.

After a $10 contribution, we feel better about doing our part in helping. That sense of urgency soon turns into self-complacency.

What happens once the news media decides it’s time to move on from Haiti? After all, the 2010 elections are looming and will soon command most of the attention.

Will the earthquake fade from our consciousness just as Hurricane Katrina did?

Why is that it takes omnipresent images of utter devastation and despair to move us to act? And why do we put it out of our minds when they are out of sight?

Our one-time contribution gets us out of any feeling of guilt, and we pretend like the problem will now fix itself. But the truth is that any massive relief effort is ongoing and requires the continued support from the international community and from people like us.

We should rise to the occasion and follow through with our pledges of not only money, but also real hope through reconstruction. Our goal should not be to only funnel millions of dollars of aid, but to actually help the Haitians restructure their country for the better.

To do that, we can’t forget about Haiti once the media stops focusing on it.

Maybe this time, we can try to develop a culture of sustained giving. Americans, on the whole, are a generous people and the individual spirit is never as strong as when we are faced with a call to action.

However, it doesn’t always find its way into our collective consciousness that people in the world suffer regardless of earthquakes or tsunamis or hurricanes.

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has been famous and controversial for making his argument that people aren’t really as good as they think they are.

In his book, “The Life You Can Save,” he presents the audience with a quagmire: If you were to see a child drowning in a lake, would you jump in to save him or her even though you are wearing your brand new (and expensive) shoes? The idea being that the cost of saving that child’s life would be your beloved shoes in the process.

He grants that most of us wouldn’t hesitate to jump in.

That leads Singer to his next point: why is it that we can justify spending hundreds of dollars on shoes when we know that there are children dying every day of malaria in Africa, for instance, and when that money could have gone toward saving their lives?

His arguments may not sway everyone, but they bring unease and even guilt when the basic gist is that one’s moral compass is weak due to one’s omission of helping unless faced with blatant natural destruction.

Besides the moral dimension of giving, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof highlights the scientific aspect of giving. He cites that, “Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards…. [For example,] when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.”

Not only does giving ease our consciences, it also is known to just make us feel better. It’s a case of charity and well being put together. But in our culture, giving is not often seen as both a benefit to the recipients and to the givers.

These text-message donors have clearly demonstrated that people can rise to the call of duty — that is, the duty a human being feels toward another human being.

If we can rise to the occasion in times of disaster, why can we not show the same care in other times of suffering?

As down on our luck we may seem with the economy, natural disasters afford us a sense of thankfulness and gratitude — that, in the overall scheme of things, we are extremely lucky.

Natural disasters make us confront the fragility of the human condition and our own mortality is brought to the forefront; they also exemplify the human spirit and its will to survive.

But after the shock of the earthquake wears off, Haiti will just be another poor country. How far will our compassion extend then, when we are not constantly faced with pictures of death? What will we do when the suffering becomes “normal” and is not immediately related to a natural disaster?

Haitian President René Préval addressed his people with this: “Let’s dry our tears and rebuild Haiti. Haiti will not perish. Haiti should not perish.”

In the midst of rubble there is opportunity, to rebuild, to restructure and to make the country better than it was before.

For that opportunity to be fully realized, we need to develop and foster a culture of giving in which a call to action doesn’t rest only on media’s coverage of disasters, but on our common humanity. We need to promote in our consciousness that giving a couple dollars here and there for the world’s poor should be a continual effort.

Not only will the poor be better off, but the givers as well. For the risk of sounding too reductionist, I honestly believe it’s a win-win situation.

Here’s one way you can help: The pre-professional health organizations of UNLV are hosting an international food fest fundraiser for Haiti Relief this Wednesday on the north field between 2:00-7:00 p.m. The prices range between $3-$7, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefitting Partners in Health, a non-profit organization that has been operating in Haiti for years.