“Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blest” – Alexander Pope
There are countless examples throughout history, but if we ever needed contempory proof that our natural response to human suffering was not measured or proportional it happened over the space of just a few weeks in 2010.
The United Nations rated the floods in Pakistan as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history. More people were affected than the 2004 South-East Asian tsunami and the earthquakes in both Kashmir and Haiti combined.
A few days’ later 33 miners in Chile were trapped down a mine.
One of these stories was a worldwide media sensation, dominating both tabloid and broadsheet headlines for months – the other was barely covered.
We saw the other day that the bigger the number the less we care, so aside from the identifiable victim and psychic numbing affect, what was it about a few dozen anonymous Chilean miners that engaged us in a way that the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history did not?
What little coverage the flood in Pakistan did receive focused on the overwhelming scale of faceless despair. There was no sense anything could be done; the victims were doomed. We looked away with a familiar feeling of resigned hopelessness.
Contrast that with the sense of drama with which we avidly followed the minute by minute coverage of the Chilean miners. Their plight wasn’t a ‘story’ when they were simply trapped, but the moment a probe found they were still alive it was an international sensation. For 52 days we were gripped with the cliff-hanger suspense; the first handwritten note from a borehole, the messages of love to their families, endless theories of rescue scenarios.
(29 miners died anonymously in New Zealand a few weeks later).
Hope mirrors our desire and we actively seek it. Despair mirrors our worst fears and we do all we can to hide from it.
There is a clear takeout for us here – focus on what can be done and people take action; focus on what can’t and asking for help seems pointless.
If our story’s main focus is on the problem then people are left with the feeling that there’s nothing they can do. If we place our greatest emphasis on the solution we’re giving them a clear, achievable goal and the ‘warm glow’ that comes from feeling they can make a difference.
The moral implications of why we respond to hope and not to despair matters less to us as fundraisers than accepting the fact that we do (as Lenny Bruce put it ‘There is no “what should be”, there is only what is.’)
There’s an ironic flip side of our inertia in the face of large numbers which we’ll look at next Tuesday.
There is hope…