Tragedy reveals our true nature — but let’s not wait for tragedy

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You don’t have to look far in the news to see tragedy.

As humans, we are fascinated with tragedy. Nothing piques the collective interest more than someone else’s suffering.

We certainly should learn from tragedy and suffering. But, perhaps our focus should be shifted — or maybe just broadened — to shine light on the best of human nature that inevitably comes through in such times.

Tragedy is playing out in California as I write this, with wildfires threatening people’s homes, businesses and lives.

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Residents began returning Thursday to communities north of San Francisco after the Kincade fire, which burned more than 76,000 acres. More than 130 homes those residents fled were destroyed in the blaze.

About 26 million people from California to Arizona were under red flag fire warnings Tuesday, and strong winds spawned dozens of new fires Wednesday and Thursday in California.

These fires are, thankfully, only a shadow of the blazes in California last year. The Camp Fire last November claimed at least 86 lives, burned more than 19,000 structures and left thousands homeless. The most recent National Climate Assessment warns those kind of fires will become commonplace across a huge swath of America, if we don’t take drastic action on climate change.

Fires this week endangered both the fine arts museum at the Getty Center in L.A. and the Reagan Library in Ventura County. It’s as if kismet is telling us people of all political persuasions need to pay attention to the conditions fueling these fires.

But, sometimes tragedy, and certainly our response to it, has more to do with human nature than with Mother Nature.

A 25-year-old man was arrested Wednesday in Sonoma County on accusations of arson, several weeks after a 68-year-old man was arrested on 15 counts of arson, after he allegedly traveled from Missouri to California to set wildfires. These incidents, if true, represent the worst of human nature.

But, what we don’t pay enough attention to is the other end of the human nature spectrum. Amid the suffering, pain and loss of any tragedy, you will see emerge incredible acts of heroism and courage, by first responders, medical personnel and good neighbors who step in to lend a hand.

It’s not all grand acts of heroism. Just as important, and perhaps farther reaching, are the thousands of acts of love and charity, which can seem all-too-extraordinary against the backdrop of a society usually portrayed as selfish and callous. In the wake of the Camp Fire last year, you could read dozens of stories of neighbors helping neighbors.

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Donations poured in to help those who lost their homes, and schools provided equipment and uniforms for opposing teams. A trash truck driver picked up a 93-year-old woman attempting to flee the fires on foot, and took her into his own home until her family could be found.

First responders, crisis response workers, journalists and volunteers worked through the fires, even as their own homes burned. A 7-year-old girl who lost everything in the fires organized a toy drive to comfort other children.

These examples are anecdotal of what we’ve seen time and again here in Oklahoma, after the Oklahoma City bombing, tornadoes, flooding and other disasters.

When tragedy strikes, the absolute best of humanity shines through. Our perceived differences and petty partisan bickering fade in an outpouring of selfless compassion.

Popular perception tells us these spontaneous acts of love are a cosmic mistake, brought on by the stress of tragedy, and our normal callous indifference to each other is our truly natural state.

I refuse to believe that, because of my faith and my own observations of people’s incredible capacity for selflessness. Compassion is our natural state. The problem is, it too often takes tragedy to shake us from our unnatural selfishness in this society.

British psychologist Steven Taylor wrote on this topic in June 2017 in “Psychology Today,” after two terrorist attacks in England and the fire in Grenfell Tower, which claimed 72 lives.

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“Human beings are not isolated individual entities,” Taylor wrote. “We share the same essence of being, and as a result we are interconnected. This enables us to sense each other’s suffering … We become prepared to sacrifice our own safety — even our own lives — for the sake of others, because we sense that we actually are them.”

The problem, then, isn’t that human nature is callous and selfish.

The problem is human nature is innately wired for compassion, but we’ve crafted a society that teaches us to devalue or ignore our true nature.

We have an incredible capacity for compassion, love and selflessness in the wake of tragedy. But, imagine a society, a community, a home, where we didn’t wait for the worst to happen to let out our best nature.

If that were the norm rather than the exception, I am confident we would remake this society into a state that reflects the better — and I would say, the true — nature of our shared humanity.

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