Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Need for Action and Altruism

Lately I've been dismayed by humanity or the lack thereof. I am not normally a pessimistic person, so much as I have high expectations of them and continue hoping that I will be proven right for having such expectations.

When a Edmonton bus driver was recently attacked with brutal violence from an angry but unjustified patron, I was shocked. I understand that the bus was mostly filled with younger student from an all-girls school but I also know that there were older people, both male and female, who were healthy and capable of helping. To read more about the attack, please read the following article:

I know it is easy to judge and easy to say that somehow if we were in that situation, we would've reacted. But it's important to think to yourself if you really would? I have been in that situation, a witness to violence of strangers, and I have reacted on multiple occasions. I want men and women to know that it is better to try to dispel violence and openly risk getting hurt, then to sit by and watch someone bare the brunt of it due to your inactivity.

This reminded me of an essay I wrote 4-6 months ago in reaction to reading Night by Elie Wiesel, as well as his Nobel Peace Price acceptance speech. For those of you who may not be familiar with Wiesel, he was in the holocaust as a 16 year old boy with his father and wrote a book accounting the atrocities that he faced and witnessed years later.

To read his acceptance speech or learn more about him please visit the following link:

Here is my essay in reaction to the speech and novel.

In Elie Wiesel's acceptance speech after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, we are presented with an often difficult but necessary question. When we are witness to a wrong doing, to an offence against humanity, when is it our obligation to react? This question applies not only to the atrocities of war but also in day to day life.

The overwhelming sense of abandonment that Elie masterfully implies throughout his speech and his book "Night" establishes this idea of non-reaction from the outside world. It is interesting to note that "Night" was originally going to be titled, in Yiddish, "And the World Remained Silent" and that this theme is carried not only throughout the book but also in Wiesel's acceptance speech when he says, " naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent."

I feel that when we are witness to a crime, a bystander to a transgression on freedom, a spectator to the corruption of human nature, it is out responsibility and duty to listen to those who cry out, to support those who falter under the oppression of another and to speak for those who can no longer attest for the cruelty they suffer. As Elie Wiesel said, "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim." It is too convenient and easy to turn away from those need of our assistance when we can justify to ourselves that our life is more precious than theirs and therefore not worth sacrificing. Why put ourselves on the line and risk joining them in their suffering? I can even understand the fear and how, when it comes down to it, sometimes flight triumphs over fight.

But human life is not a matter of brute destruction and survival. We have evolved to mass and complicated societies. We should no longer leave the weakest to die but instead evaluate a community's worth not on how strong they are but how they protect the weak and feeble. We are beyond the petty struggle for survival and can no longer expect those who are unable to fend for themselves to forgive us for thriving while we ignore their plight.

This struggle with obligation to others and obligation to self is apparent when Elie's father is of dysentery on the concentration camp and Elie is told by the blockalteste that, "Each of us lives and dies alone." Elie grapples with this idea and the guilt that such a singular thought and way to live conveys, especially in times of need. He admits, "He was right, I thought deep down, not daring to admit it to myself...It was only a fraction of a second, but it left me feeling guilty." It is these moments when we must first overcome out self-serving tendencies and then work to overcome the situations that make us resort to such thoughts.

True altruism beings when we risk ourselves in order to protect another. When our silence becomes deadly, it is with compulsion that we must speak out. When those, like Elie Wiesel, survive and address the horrors that they lived with, it is our duty to listen and ensure that never again does someone have to bear witness to atrocities while we turn a blind eye to it, whether it is across the room, across the street or across the world.

-Shannon Lambert

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