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Friday, September 4, 2009

The High Cost of Living... and Dying on the Cheap

In an unusually somber tone, I am writing today about a visit that I made to the Museum of Tolerance.

For those of you who don't know, the MOT is a museum in Los Angeles that is dedicated to the survivors and victims of the Holocaust of World War II. There are various exhibits about the effects of intolerance, some fairly nice interactive exhibits, and a number of films and room layouts designed to make a person appreciate the total hell that people went through if they had the misfortune of being the wrong "kind" of people during a time which will always stand as a watermark of horror in our histories.

However, though touched by what I saw, I must admit that I am an avid reader and researcher of that period: World War II is, in many ways, an almost archetypical example of good vs. evil. And it is so extreme that if it had not actually happened, I suspect many of us would have walked out of any movie about it for being too "unrealistic" for the excesses of both cruelty and heroism portrayed. At any rate, as a result of my reading and research, I was perhaps not as overwhelmed by the horrors as some who visit the museum might be. At least for me, they were not "news" or a surprise, but something I went in knowing of.

What did get to me, though was a small moment in one of the exhibits where it talked about the 33 million (yes MILLION) refugees in the world today. It asked what we (the audience) thought the leading cause of death for these people was. I guessed starvation (a no brainer).


The answer was landmines.

What?? Landmines?

Kee-rect. And many - if not most - of the victims are children.

Then the exhibit film went on to explain the cost variables: a landmine can cost as little as $30 to make, as much as $1,000 to defuse, and many times that to care for a human being injured by one.

This really hit home. Not because I've been victimized by a landmine, but because my wife recently had surgery which will cost (when all is said and done) several hundred thousand dollars. And so it occurred to me how very frail we all are in some ways. Think about it. Buy a set of drinking glasses for $5 at Target, shatter one on the ground, pick up a piece, and you have a weapon capable of ending a life. Slash someone with it, and if they survive the costs to keep them alive could be astronomical.

Point being: we have to go to extraordinary extremes to keep ourselves - as individuals, as a culture, as a race - functioning and surviving.

We are such fragile creatures. Easy to break, mentally, physically, emotionally. And yet...

And yet we built the pyramids.

And yet we have written literature that will survive across millennia.

We have learned to live.

What is next, then? Have we conquered our infirmities? Surely not. We have taken steps in the right direction, but as a race we are still babies, taking our first halting steps toward what I hope and pray will be a better future.

Will there ever be another tragedy of pre-planned malice and horror like the Holocaust? Will there ever be another slaughter to compare with the 20 million Russians lost during World War II?

I don't know. It's easy, sometimes, to devalue life. Perhaps because it's so cheap to end it.

But then, wouldn't the expense involved in maintaining it point to its inherent value? Like a Ming vase, like an original draft of the Declaration of Independence, like a symphony page handwritten by Beethoven, we are of inestimable worth. Like those things, when damaged our repair is difficult and sometimes impossible. And so does it not make sense, then, that we treat each other as the priceless objects of value that we are?


joanie said...

Wow this was incredible and I detest history yep that's right I will never profess to know much history no less be a history buff. Yes I know I just drooped to low levels by confessing that, but I thoroughly enjoyed this and your incredible respect for all of humanity and the value you placed on each of us as individuals. Terriffic MB just terriffic. If you're attempting to be the next Dale Carnegie you're doing a mighty fine job!

Michaelbrent said...

What a nice thing to say, Joanie. You are yourself no slouch on the "kindness-scale"!

karen said...

Hey! I really enjoyed this post. My mom had a great friend die because of a landmine. Seriously tricky things they are. And aren't we all really priceless. I also hope that your wife is doing well in her recovery. Enjoy your weekend!

Corey Judd said...

I guess Princess Diana had it right--landmines are bad.

Your post reminded me of the chapter in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" entitled Fecundity (icky word).

In our culture the inidvidual is highly valued. But, depending on what you believe, shouldn't we embrace death as a transition rather than an end?

In practical terms, however, money is a finite resource. There are tons of articles out there expressing horror at how different governments or insurance companies determine the monetary value of human life. I'm wondering when they're going to start discussing differing values based on the individual's worth to society. Life is many things of not too short.

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