Before I go, I have something to say

Home Fires

By the time this appears in print, my favorite Western state could have all gone up in flames. I lived in Colorado for nearly a decade, for the entire length of my first marriage and then some, moving back to Iowa to be near my parents. It was lovely to see the snow-topped Rockies every day, though I hate to think they might have had anything to do with my decision to marry the man I did

If he were still alive today, I know he, too, would be worried about the place where he lived even longer than me. My Facebook page is full of worried comments from people with ties there. One old friend says simply, “Pray for Colorado!” My reply is simple: “I will.” Another posts the same plea on behalf of endangered livestock, days later reporting the heartbreaking news that all of their show horses and a pet pig have died when their barn caught fire.

I’m not sure where this took place. The fires are all over, but really, it doesn’t matter. I have old friends in Boulder as well as Fort Collins, and both are under siege. Even if I don’t know anyone near a fire, I can’t stop thinking about all those houses, all those people, all those animals, both domestic and wild.

Ten years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Pagosa Springs, high in the mountains near Durango and Mesa Verde. Even in our handsome, remote cottage, we heard news of wildfires, and one day I was terrified to realize that the thing that had landed in my lap was not an insect but a flake of ash. On our way to see Four Corners (the intersection of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah), we came as close to a forest fire as I ever hope to. Red flames marched down the mountains just above the highway, taking down beautiful ponderosa pines and aspens on their way. Helicopters dumped water in what looked like a pathetically David-and-Goliath mismatch.

For a time, we were told we could not go back the way we’d come in; the fire had scorched a hole in our return route. But the firefighters prevailed, and we didn’t have to take the long way home through New Mexico.

I’ve seen the photos of the fire behind the Air Force Academy, looking like a gray monster about to consume the whole, beautiful facility. I know it’s beautiful, especially the chapel that reaches to the sky. I’ve seen it. I’ve been to Boulder countless times, too.

I’m not showing off here. My point is this: the more you travel, the more you care when things happen to the places you’ve been to. Whether it’s the slow but inexorable sinking of Venice, or demonstrations in the streets of Paris, it’s different when you’ve walked and eaten there. You don’t have to try as hard to imagine “foreign” lives. We should go to many places, I think, so we can sympathize with their miseries (and exult in their joys) in our hearts as well as comprehend them in our minds.

Even if we can’t travel much, it helps to befriend people from as many cultures as we can. A Muslim doctor spoke twice at our church, providing us fascinating information about a faith few of us pretended to know much about. Imagine how we felt when the government of Syria began killing its citizens, when we remembered that was his homeland. It’s the difference between caring remotely – “Oh, poor them” – and feeling like we’ve been punched in the gut. “How is his family?” we asked each other. “Is he able to talk to them?” “What can we do to help?”

Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times who mainly covers the Middle East, has reported some puzzling but revealing research about compassion. We’ve all heard about “compassion fatigue,” in which normally caring people become so overwhelmed by bad news from this country and that country, and this group and that group, that they find themselves no longer able to reach out and help. It’s not that they no longer care, but that they start to feel if they can’t help everyone, they can’t help anyone.

What Kristof wrote about was a study done by Paul Slovic of the Decision Science Research Institute. He and his team offered one group the opportunity to donate to a starving girl, Rokia, and others to a starving boy named Moussa. Each group responded generously to the single child whose story they heard. But when a third group was asked to donate to both (starving!) children, they were less likely to donate anything.

So now Kristof focuses on one person, no matter how vast the story – genocide, civil war, environmental devastation – he is telling. He does this especially after learning of another dismaying finding in Slovic’s paper, which showed that when one person’s story – say, one starving child – is accompanied by solid statistics showing just how bad things are, contributions to that child are vastly reduced.

What is wrong with us? I won’t go there. Even Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” We know how close she got to individuals, and it worked. Perhaps we can’t see the single burning tree, or house, or owl, or dog, for the raging forest fire. So think about the one person, scrambling to get away alive from his burning house. Think about the one pet pig, beloved but beyond saving. If enough of us think of the one – each of us a different one – maybe we can save a city, a population, a country in need.

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