Tory philosopher George Grant knew that there was only one way for the human heart to lift itself into the heights of Platonic Eros—that pure, disinterested, universal love. Grant insisted that, in order to start that long and often painful journey, we must always begin selfishly—by loving our own. Our own. That has always sounded so vicious to me, so cold. And I’ve always been slightly ashamed, on behalf of my species, of the undeniable truth of it.
The force of Grant’s certainty has bound my thoughts and dragged them into some of the foggier moor lands of the human experience lately. As I read the tragic accounts of the Haitian catastrophe, I wonder which kind of death touches us more painfully: incalculably massive losses suffered far away by strangers, or the single loss of someone close and dear?
The question asked, we feel the answer even before knowing it—an answer as horrifying as it is inexorable. We may even defer the dark admission by gently touching it from a distance with a question. Think of someone you love, someone whose breath and being have poured themselves into your blood, someone at the thought of whom you feel the air thinning and sweetening. How many Haitians would need to die before you felt their loss as heavily as you would feel the loss of that one person? A hundred? A thousand? Thousands of thousands? More than those, and then countless more. Let millions of strangers die—let their bloated bodies be piled in front of your very eyes—and, while your loved one lives, you shall feel no loss that you cannot negotiate, manage and eventually (perhaps immediately) forget.
Love is what attaches us to others and gives them significance, but love magnifies what it touches so absolutely that it makes us indifferent to those who languish outside its arbitrary jurisdiction. There is a cruel, capricious mystery in this. It isn’t fair; it isn’t right; it isn’t reasonable; it just happens. And no mortality statistic can ever be sufficiently cataclysmic to grieve us so long as that person whose smile we cannot live without is safe. Only by imaginatively placing that person in the midst of the tragedy can we turn it into something real. Only when we imagine that indispensable person staggering—bleeding, starving and weeping—through the streets of Port-au-Prince and feel the vertiginous sickness that comes of watching helplessly as a loved one suffers—only then is the weight of Haiti’s calamity made heavy for us. Only then are we with the Haitians, and only then do we feel with them (and savour the literal meaning of “compassion”).
To value human life as a whole, we must love strangers. To love strangers, we must seed our small, selfish loves with what we most keenly fear: we must put those we love most passionately at hypothetical risk and feel the sting of their imminent loss. The value of life cannot be comprehended in the abstract, as an inanimate concept. It requires a living incarnation, and that incarnation must be loved and must be vulnerable: that is the way in which “love is the law” of all healthy communities.
They who are unable or unwilling to place what they most cherish on the pyre (on the pyre of the spirit, at least) do not truly dwell within the communities to which they pretend to belong. They can barely claim to be human at all.