In the past few days, a particular Reuters photograph has gone viral, as they say: a small boy in a red shirt and blue shorts, eyes closed, head turned to the side, knees tucked slightly under him, face down in the surf on the sand of a beach, dead, drowned, lost. We are told now that his name is Aylan Kurdi, that his brother and mother also drowned. That his father lives, distraught. The family fled Syria for Turkey, and then attempted to reach Europe in a smuggler's boat, hoping to reach Aylan's aunt in Canada. The boat foundered, and the father lost his children, and little Aylan in his blue velcro sneakers washed up on the beach.
I saw the photo, and I did not linger long over it, but I did not stop seeing it all that day. Four times I have had little boys of my own. I have pulled little red shirts over their heads and helped them into their little blue shoes to prepare for going out. I have seen them curled up, still wearing their shoes, with their knees tucked under them and their bottoms in the air, tired out.
Yesterday I drove to a doctor's office, to a pharmacy. I listened to Aylan's aunt giving an interview to the press, telling her brother's story. I wept behind the steering wheel. I stopped at traffic lights, I stood in line at the pharmacy. Everywhere I saw small boys, holding the hands of their mothers, begging their fathers for candy in the aisles. I closed my eyes and I saw the same small boys, this one in his yellow shirt and cartoon sneakers, that one in his plaid shorts with his shock of blond hair, face down on the beach. I can still hear Aylan's aunt speaking to the English-language broadcasters, how Aylan's father would bring home a banana for his sons to divide between them, how he says now he wants only to sit by his sons' grave, and to buy a whole banana every day to bring there, to place on the earth.
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Some people have asked why the photo matters. Why did people like me not really pay any attention, or not much attention, to the Syrian refugees (to any refugees in particular), and then all of a sudden this one child has the fortune to be snapped by a Reuters photographer and everyone is talking about them? If Aylan matters then don't they all matter?
Why are we upset by the sight of this one boy? We should be more upset by the thousands upon thousands who die every day of hunger, of trauma, of violence, no?
Some of the voices are angry. It shouldn't be this way. It shouldn't matter that there is a photo. You should have cared without having to see the photo. The facts are all there in the newspapers.
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There's no point in being angry at human nature. "It is what it is," a cliché if there ever was one, but well suited for the situation. We are creatures who evolved in close societies, not global ones. We evolved to come forth out of still tinier societies, that is to say families; to form new ones, and to raise up our young ones within them. We are designed to respond to the sight of a lost child before us -- because (being members of a species born in families and of close societies) if we find ourselves in close proximity to a child in desperate need of help, the long experience of the generations is that the child is probably one of our own. The sight of a lost child triggers a sense of "one of us," of belonging, and a desire to reach out and draw the child out of danger. Stories, too, like Aylan's aunt speaking to the English-language press in her own broken voice with no translator in the way, telling about the half-banana Aylan begged daily from his daddy, do this. For stories have also been with us from the beginning; if your voice tells me a story in my language, then the chances are good that we belong to each other, somehow.
No newspaper report can reproduce this kind of primal trigger. The numbers can get larger and larger. The adjectives, more and more florid. We can learn to understand the numbers, but we aren't wired to have a physical response. We can't make ourselves be wired that way, unless we devote time to carefully meditating upon the numbers, upon the sobering facts, to turn them into imagined individuals.
(And notice that the facts and numbers are "sobering" -- rather the opposite effect of Aylan's half-submerged face -- the photograph raises passions we sometimes forget we have; the numbers suppress them.)
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In the photograph, Aylan is beyond our help, and we know it, if not from the position of his body, then from the caption. In the next photo, if we can go on to the next photo, a uniformed man tenderly cradles the boy. And then, maybe we stop looking, or wish we had, later, when we pick up our own sleeping child.
No, there's no point in being angry at people for caring when they see one lost boy. You might as well be angry that we salivate at the sight of food or recoil at the sight of a scorpion. It's a reflex for the survival of our species, and we've never developed the reflex to weep at the sight of newsprint. We might be able to muster the will, but it is not a reflex.
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What the governments involved decide to do about the Syrian refugees -- this is a question of the newsprint sort. I'm not saying it isn't important. I'm not saying that the governments involved, which are after all made up of human beings, can't make their decisions from a place that is affected by photographs of lost children as well as by lists of numbers, facts, quotes. It's possible that ordinary people (people responding to photographs of lost children) can nudge these decisions -- there are ways of sending messages to the decision-makers, after all, in all but the most repressive regimes.
There is nothing, though, that I can do for Aylan Kurdi, and not just because he is already lost, in the photograph. It is, of course, true that the uniformed man has already tended to his body and delivered him into the hands of his grieving, remaining family; they will do for him everything else that it is fitting to do. There is nothing I can do, and I know it at the instant that I behold the lost little body, and yet I cannot stop the leaping of the heart that would power my arms to reach out to him. If I look at the photograph again, I feel it again. It is physical. I can't believe the strength of it. And it is entirely impotent. Not just because the little boy is dead and beyond help; it arouses me to a physical drive to rescue, and there is no object of rescue, primarily because the little lost boy I can see is not really here with me. The photograph has tricked my deep brain.
It has presented me with an illusion that here is a child, that we are together, that the child is in need, and because I am the one who is near and who sees him lost and alone, I must reach him before it is too late.
The physical response to the nearby child, the child who must be (reflexively) held dearly, remains and the higher mind cannot entirely overrule it. Even though the higher mind has to know it's an illusion.
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It isn't bad or wrong that we should have such a reaction to a photograph when we haven't had a reaction to mere news articles -- and it shouldn't surprise us, either. It is what it is, human nature. Some are arguing that the lesson here (now that we've finally been touched by the previously-ignored Syrian refugee problem) is that we should channel our reaction into communications with the relevant governments, in some way that will help other little boys and girls and their parents, keep them from washing up on the beach. And perhaps that is true. At least the people who are closest to the refugees and can reach them, those who can make a difference -- maybe they too will be moved to act, one at a time, and help.
As for me, an ocean away: I'm left wondering what it is that holds back the reflex, every day of my life, as I walk among the wounded who are still breathing and within my reach.