“There were nights when she couldn’t sleep. I would breathe with her to ask her calm down. And through that experience we bonded. When you say “Ebola,” I know that the world will think numbers or moon suits. But when you say “Ebola” to me, I think about Esther.” (Katie Meyler, Ebola worker)
Katie had got to know Esther when she visited an Ebola treatment centre, where survivors were rejoicing and celebrating. All except one little girl who was lying with her face down and just bawling her eyes out. She had been a survivor too, but when she woke up from a coma, her whole family was dead. No one to pick her up. People were afraid to hug her, too frightened of catching the disease themselves. Her name was Esther.
It is easier to associate with the suffering of an individual than it is with impersonal statistics. We find it difficult to wrap our heads around overly large numbers. With a particular person we can attempt to walk in their shoes and, at some level, appreciate the depth of their suffering and desolation. Esther’s situation was replicated again and again in the Ebola-hit areas of Africa. Children, whose parents had died from the disease, were left orphaned and abandoned, people afraid to touch them.
As with every crisis the bright side of human nature soared amongst so much pain, horror and death.
Doctors, nurses and other volunteers from many nations and creeds flocked to the afflicted areas and risked their lives to work beside their African counterparts in combating the disease. They worked in conditions which, more often than not, were less than adequate. One health worker said they found themselves “fighting a forest fire with spray bottles”. However, they did not give up.
In acknowledgement of their heroic efforts Time magazine made the Ebola fighters the ‘Person of the Year’ for 2014.
As part of its citation it said: “The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight. For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boast it defences, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are Time’s 2014 Person of the Year.”
These people are not the super-heroes of our cinema screens. They don’t possess the gifted, magical qualities of Superman, Harry Potter or Superwoman. No, they are everyday heroes who put their lives on the line to relieve the sufferings of others. Their courage and dedication took them beyond boundaries of safety into life-threatening situations. What motivated them to take such risks?
Joseph Campbell, writing about the making of heroes, says: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
Isn’t this the challenge that the wisdom of the Gospel constantly puts before us? “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full,” Jesus says. But then He adds: “those who love their life will lose it.”
When we become indifferent, apathetic and cynical we choke the very life-force within us. Martin Luther King put it starkly when he said: “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man (woman) has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” His words are powerful and challenging because he lived them and paid the ultimate price with his life.
I have no doubt that there are many, many people in all our neighbourhoods who, because of the circumstances of their own lives or the lives of their families, live with the qualities of the ‘heroic heart’ on a daily basis. They are the unsung heroes who never make the cover of Time magazine. They live with extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice in the ordinariness of everyday. In doing so they show extraordinary love: “No greater love has any man (woman) than they lay down their life for a friend.”
But we also know, given the weakness and fragility of human nature, that we are capable of cocooning ourselves in a false safety. A safety that, unknowingly, takes our hearts on a journey of slow strangulation and indifference rather than being open to ‘heroic transformation.’ A journey that denies us the exhilaration of risk and withers our dreams. This was summed up succinctly by the song, Solitaire:
There was a man
A lonely man
Who lost his love
Through his indifference
A heart that cared
That went unshared
Until it died
Within his silence.
Indifference is the rock on which our hearts become wizened and dry. No wonder Helen Keller said: “Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.”
In recent times Pope Francis spoke about ‘Global Indifference’. As individuals, he says, because of our pretensions to self sufficiency, we are tempted to give into “that fatal withdrawal into ourselves which is indifference”. Thereby becoming apathetic to the plight of others and of our planet. As an antidote to this indifference we must, he says, pray to develop merciful hearts which are attentive and generous, hearts which are not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalisation of indifference. He actually signposts the qualities of a hero’s heart. He goes on to say that his deepest wish is, that where the Church is present, especially in our parishes and in our communities, they may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference.
These few lines from G.A. Kennedy’s poem points to the ‘subtleness’ of indifference and how easy it to slip into complacency:
When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by, They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die; For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain, They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.