Eight years of our family memories have to do with the island of Hispanola in the Caribbean. Whenever we’d fly to or from the Dominican Republic, invariably we’d stop in Port-au- Prince, Haiti en route. This is why the sight of the blindingly white iconic National Palace and its ancient cathedral in ruins shakes the very core of my being.
Haiti was overpopulated for its eco-system when I was a child; with over twice that number today, it is an ecological nightmare. For a tree has no chance of survival when one’s child is starving to death.
Yet somehow, in spite of a long series of ineffective, unscrupulous, or sadistic leaders, the nation has somehow survived. A failed state that somehow defies that designation through the bullheaded determination of its unbelievably resilient people. A nation that, of all people in the Americas, ought to be the most depressed, the most beaten-down, instead stuns visitors by its vitality and joie du vivre.
So Haiti will rise again. The bells will ring once again. But so utterly is its infrastructure shattered this time that it will take many years for it to climb back even to pre-quake levels. This time, so desperate are the stakes that we turn the other way at our own national peril.
It might even turn out to be good for us in the United States. For so long have we been wallowing in recessionary poor-me-ism that we have failed to realize that by the standards of most of the world, we are all rich. These images of an imploding nation beamed into our homes by television ought to shock us into (1) an urgent determination to make each of us committees of one in making a difference, and (2) result in a deep sense of gratitude for all we have left in spite of the recession.
For paradoxically, affluence does not loosen up our pocketbooks – hard times do, for we then realize how on target John Donne was when he reminded us that:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”