Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Catastrophe in Asia

Sometimes, life is in dire need of perspective. A little over three and half years ago, on Christmas no less, my father died. It was a terrible experience, spending the last years of his life literally trapped inside of his own body (mutilated and ultimately mortally wounded by the willful negligence of a doctor two decades before). This powerful and strong-willed man was reduced to complete dependency, with a body that was doing everything possible to rebel against his will to live. It was a traumatic event in my life. I loved my father. He was a good and decent man, in a world filled with so many who are not. Holding him in my arms and watching his last breaths, and feeling his life drain from his body, haunted me for many months.

The bitterness and anger I felt, from the moment the doctor destroyed my father's life, to the evening he passed from this earth, manifested such visceral feelings of hatred inside of me, particularly at the injustice of what had been done to my dad (who had harmed no one and dedicated his life to helping others) made me inconsolable. My father came from a family of coal miners, who raised him with a sense of fatalism (since none of the men in his family survived past 60 from the mines [most of whom were killed by black lung]), and he raised me with the same values of stoicism (never to express your emotions, never to burden others with your sorrows, and absolutely be in control of yourself at all times, as you never know what day will be your last). They are not values that I necessarily agree with, even now, and they were such contradictions of the emotionalism of my mother's Italian ancestry (which I had within me, as well). Following his death I had a very hard time coming to grips with all of the varied feelings that were swirling within my mind.

On the next day, the tsunami hit east Asia, devastating several countries and killing on upwards of a quarter of a million people. It was not just the videos of watching people being swept up into the oceans that was most disturbing, as bad as that was. It was the stories of entire families, in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and beyond, who were physically wiped out. Generations of hopes, love, of life, completely exterminated by the waves of nature. It reminded me of just how fortunate I was, as someone who was only mourning the loss of a parent, instead of my entire family or city. When I went home from my dad's funeral, as tough as it was, I was going home to a place with a roof, with a loving spouse, with a life of my own. Sometimes, those of us who live a life of relative comfort compared to the rest of the world need to be reminded of how fortunate we are.

Tragically, east Asia has endured yet another round of death and destruction from mother nature, as well as those seeking their paradise in the hereafter. Two years ago, I traveled to the parts of China wrecked by the recent earthquake, and the stories there are heart-rendering. People tend to think of China as an increasingly wealthy country (and it is), but the central part of the country is still economically behind the coastal areas, and the buildings, particularly in the surrounding rural areas, are not the kind that can withstand a 7.9-magnitude earthquake. It is not like being trapped in a building here. If you get trapped in a building in that part of the country, your chance for survival is minimal at best. When you work and/or live in a country for a while, over time (usually) you begin to become attached to that society and its people. Having traveled these parts and met and befriended people in that region, it is not easy to read these stories. These are everyday folk like anyone else, just trying to live life, and one could only hope the numbers are wrong.

The cyclone deaths in Myanmar are no less devastating, although not as covered because of the regime's restrictiveness. In the end, the deaths in both of these disasters may exceed or match the tsunami a few years ago (which would have been unimaginable until now). And this potentially outpaces the number of people killed in Iraq in the last five years, on all sides. Just in a few days.

I typically do not advocate giving money to charity, since cleanup, like other necessities of society, are the fundamental responsibility of the state, not private charitable groups. But since one of the countries is openly eliciting funds, it would be remiss not include the pertinent information.

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