The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 5, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Disaster at our doorstep

For The Tribune-Democrat

JOHNSTOWN — We live in a world filled with troubles, great and small. It is a measure of this world’s difficulties that even the great tragedies, ones that use to be insulated from us by distance or borders, now reach out to each and every one of us.

Economic and business news, what once seemed so incredibly boring, now has a primacy that captures our attention and drives our worries as much as if it was a storm and we were in a small boat far out to sea. The vagaries of politics and the complexities of policy debate we now follow with rapt attention.

Perhaps this is the most telling influence of the information age. No longer will there be a comfortable delay between event and effect. As things happen in countries far away, we will feel the results locally with an instantaneousness that will take our breath away. Unfortunately, this is not a passing phenomenon, but a new template, one that will define our future as individuals, and as the human species.

In recent weeks, a number of countries in the Middle East have been experiencing unrest that in some cases may be the onset of revolution. In the not-too-distant past, that would have been interesting news, but not something that would have caused most of us any worry.

We actually might have privately cheered for people who were attempting to throw off the yoke of tyranny.  

How things have changed.

Within days, even hours of the onset of those events, the price of gas, already expensive, shot up even further. Oil at one point topped $119 per barrel, a record. All of a sudden, $5 per gallon gas took on the air of inevitability. In one aspect, it was a panic reaction. The oil coming out of the ground over there is months away from hitting gas pumps over here.

And yet, the price changed.

This is another straw on an economic back that, for America, is steadily weakening. For the first time since the unsure days of the Revolution, our country is teetering on the brink of economic disaster. We look to Washington and the people we elected, only to see two sides locked in unyielding mortal combat, choosing partisanship over survival.

No longer can we live our lives as if we existed on an island; isolated from the rest of the world. In our interconnectedness through the Internet, our neighborhood has grown.

Our friendships once spanned a few blocks. Now we make friends across several continents. But while we fret about the price of gasoline, we still don’t feel the loss of hundreds of protesters gunned down by their own vengeful government. When disease breaks out, taking hundreds or thousands of lives, we don’t mourn. Last week, Baltimore television stations reported the tragedy of seven murders in seven weeks.  

Juarez, Mexico, had that many in one afternoon.  

We may have connected to each other with our heads, but we lack the connection the world really needs; the one between our hearts.

John Dunne’s contemplation reminds us that whether we are close together or far apart, whether we are friends or complete strangers, all of us share one thing in common: Our humanity.  As President Kennedy reminded us,  “We are all mortal.”

Perhaps we are no longer able to feel sorrow when humans die tragically half a world away. Maybe we have, under the burdens of our own lives, lost our empathy. In a perfect world, every person’s death would diminish us, because we would celebrate our shared humanness, elevating that quality above all other considerations.  

But Dunne’s words are also a warning. If we do not reclaim our empathy for one another, that deliberate estrangement will eventually be our undoing.

Night is settling upon the land. Under the gathering clouds, a bell is somberly tolling.

We may ask ourselves for whom it rings. Dunne answers…

“It tolls for thee.”

The future, our destiny, our fate is still our choice to make.

Let us hope we choose wisely.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.