For Whom Would You Risk Your Life?

November 18, 2013


kkkDillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?

According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.

When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to  shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.

In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling  among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same.  In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.

Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?

Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.

So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?

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