As morbid an insight as it may be, I believe that it is easier for most Australians to imagine what it would be like to burn to death than to die from starvation.
This thought came to me as I watched the overwhelming response to the bushfires that devastated the State of Victoria.
From the Prime Minister, who has called for a day of mourning, to the small children who emptied their moneyboxes to help the victims, this tragedy unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of emotion. It is a response that has fascinated me.
Why do we appear to be more sensitive to this disaster than to the proportionally greater global tragedy that sees one child dying from starvation every five seconds?
According to a controversial article by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ross Gittins, the communal response to this bushfire and other natural disasters was “exploitive, voyeuristic, unfair, self-gratifying and even pathological”. Gittins believes that people see natural disasters as a form of entertainment and suspects that the misfortune of others adds “interest and excitement to our humdrum lives”. He also believes that the rush to donate to victims of these tragedies was driven by self-promotion and a desire to feel good about oneself.
While I suspect that the article may have been the outpourings of a journalist who has spent too much time in the cynically and negatively driven world of media, his observations certainly inspired me to explore more deeply why we as a nation were so rocked by this disaster.
I suspect Gittins’ premise, that our generosity is borne from a seed of self-focus, may be closer to the truth than most people would want to believe; but not, however, in the framework of selfishness that he endorses.
My own theory is that our experience as citizens of Australia allows us to more readily identify and empathise with the victims of this tragedy. Fires are more real to us than starvation is. Most of us have an innate understanding, usually borne of experience, of the physical pain associated with being burnt. We have placed a hand too close to a BBQ or let a match burn too low or been splashed by boiling water.
This first hand experience has been computed in the hard drive of our memory and our emotional reactions can be triggered by this sense of understanding. We have a connection, albeit a minute one, with the horror of trying to outrun a fire or being trapped by the ferocity that has been so vividly and incessantly described to us via the media. It has evoked emotions that have allowed us to identify with the fear that must have been experienced by those who died or were injured.
However, we will never starve to death in this country. It is not a condition that we have ever or will ever have to contend with. We cannot physically, mentally or emotionally relate to such a reality.
It is not that we do not desire to, but we have no experiential reference point that allow us to bond with those afflicted in faraway lands. We, in a sense, allow ourselves to dehumanise them and thus, subconsciously grant ourselves emotional amnesty.
But the proximity and shared understanding of the bushfires did not afford us this buffer of immunity and we were confronted by the plight of our fellow citizens. It was a response that united us with those who were suffering.
It was a reaction that should inspire great hope for all Christians, for it is this love and compassion that St Paul referred to as the fruits of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the Galatians.
So perhaps now, in this season of Lent, it is the perfect time to ask God to expand our capacity to love and have compassion, for those who lives and suffering are outside the confines of our understanding and experience.