The Impulse to Care

How can we account for the irrepressible human impulse to care?

The disaster in Japan is only the most recent in a series of tragedies and near-tragedies that have moved millions of people all over the world to care about people in need.

Beginning with the earthquake in Haiti, proceeding through the unemployment crisis in America, the rescue of Chilean mineworkers, freedom movements in North Africa, the earthquake in New Zealand, and now the almost unbelievable scenario unfolding in Japan, we have witnessed humanity's seemingly inexhaustible ability to show concern and rally resources to aid those who are suffering.

What is the source of this impulse? Why should we care about people suffering in places far away from where we live? Why should their plight affect us?

If we follow the evolutionary model of human nature and development, this impulse to care about our fellow human beings seems out of place. In the wild, packs and troops and prides and herds of all sorts of beasts compete with one another for food and space. They could care less if a group of their competitors is wiped out by a flood or sudden blight of some kind.

But people care about people who are suffering through no fault of their own. We come to their aid, often giving sacrificially of our time and treasure, to try to relieve the plight of people we do not know and will never meet.

Something in us experiences a bond with those who are suffering and leads us to try to find some way to help.

This is no animal instinct; instead, it is evidence that something in the human being transcends the animal kingdom. Humans are something other than just advanced beasts. Something in us beyond instinct and mere reason causes us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice.

We are made in the image of God, and it is characteristic of God to care for poor, wretched sinners such as we. He has made us to be our brother's keeper, and we feel pain for those who are suffering precisely because, having been made in the image of God, we cannot not feel their pain and want to do something to relieve it.

As believers we don't expect those outside the pale of faith to agree with our assessment. But as believers we should give thanks to God for every such reminder that people are more than animals, that we are made "a little lower than angels" and are endowed with God's image. Were this not so, people would continue to suffer, as they certainly will, but without the succor and assistance of their fellow human beings, who cannot help but respond when the impulse to care prompts them to do so.

Additional related texts: Psalm 8; Hebrews 2.5-9; Philippians 2.5-11

A conversation starter: "It's very encouraging to see the outpouring of international assistance flowing toward places like New Zealand and Japan. But why should this be so? Why do people care about people they don't even know?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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