In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, where thousands died and hundreds-of-thousands more were left homeless, almost everyone I spoke to asked the same question: My Filipina wife — was anyone in her immediate family affected?
Everyone was greatly relieved to learn that, no, none of my wife’s immediate family members were harmed by the storm. To these kindhearted and compassionate inquirers, the absence of death, injury, or property damage to my wife’s closest relatives was a great relief, a kind of silver lining to the dark cloud of death that descended on her birth country. By some sort of strange spiritual calculus, it was understood and taken for granted that blood relations are intrinsically more important, more valuable to us, than everyone else – with the exception of those who are welcomed bloodlessly into the family through adoption and marriage. They’re more important, also.
Certainly, our collective hearts go out to our fellow humans in the face of extraordinary suffering. We suffer with them whether we know them or not.
But the suffering is so much less when the victims aren’t anyone we know or anyone close to someone we know.
Feeling this way isn’t wrong, or bad. It’s real and true for most of us. It does, however, expose one of the fundamental problems with our prevailing value system: we’re only supposed to really care (or care more than we otherwise would) when a family member is involved.
Or a celebrity – but that’s another story.
How we define “family” is at the root of our troubles as a species. It’s what allows us to form clans, tribes, mafias, religions, corporations – all sorts of organizations that are helpful and protective of their members and potentially competitive, dangerous, and ultimately violent to everyone else. “Family” is the end that justifies all means necessary.
If “family” is indeed the most important organization in each person’s life, then we could solve most of the world’s ills by generously expanding our definition of family. The more people we consider our brother and our sister, the easier it becomes to expand the scope of our kindness and to narrow the breadth of our apathy. If every Filipino swept away in the Typhoon really was a part of our “immediate family,” feeling relief at their death would seem somewhat awkward.
For centuries, poets have been reminding us not to ask for whom the bell tolls. But we go on doing it anyway, persistently oblivious that it tolls for all of us each and every time our Filipino brother and our Haitian Sister and our Japanese mother and our Afghani father — and anyone else who comes from the same exploding star — suffers the pain of being alive.