Three events that occurred this week reminded me of this major question that philosophers often talk about among themselves, in their chambers, but whose real answer can only be found in action.
A young girl was attacked in Strasbourg, France, and hardly anyone reacted; the trial of the murderers of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff and the employees and customers of the Hypercacher supermarket; the brush between Chinese and Taiwanese planes in China’s Seas, which is threatening to trigger a conflict that could lead the United States and then the rest of the world into a nuclear war.
In the first matter, no one was willing to take the risk, however small, of dying to defend a young girl attacked by thugs. In the second matter, it involved people indoctrinated enough to kill and die out of pure hatred of others. In the third matter, the question still remains as to whether a country will take the risk of putting the lives of their citizens in peril to protect their freedom, or to defend the freedom of people in another country.
So, in all of these three cases, the recurring question is almost the same: who is ready to sacrifice themselves, for a noble or crazy, respectable or diabolical cause?
It appears, however, that in the West more than elsewhere, fewer and fewer people are prepared to take the risk of dying to save an individual, defend a cause, or save a country. Or perhaps, for most people, to save their own children, or their parents.
For no other person? Really? Nothing or no one else is really worth sacrificing yourself? Not even the happiness of future generations?
Apart from professional rescue personnel, such as firemen, policemen, gendarmes, and paramedics, there are few people who when witnessing a threat (a hostage-taking, a fire, drowning incident, assault) that a stranger is faced with, will take the risk of saving him or her. And these rare people who generally come from very modest backgrounds are admired, adored and revered. And rightly so.
Furthermore, apart from professional soldiers, few are willing to risk their lives to defend the freedom of their country or of another. The last world war, for example, cruelly showed that the philosophers who were best structured to debate about being and nothingness could prove to be the most cowardly and spineless men in the face of danger, while others, high-ranking civil servants, bourgeoisie, workers, peasants, ordinary people, could be heroic and face the firing squads with a smile.
And, today, one wonders whether any of our western democracies, which for the most part are satiated, tired, narcissistic and obsessed with the moment, while avoiding the topic of death with all types of distraction, would be capable of displaying a credible determination to take the risk of being annihilated by a nuclear strike, to protect the independence of Taiwan, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Greece. … Which nation? None, no doubt. If it were the case, NATO, and with it the west, would be nothing more than paper tigers.
The experience of history, however, teaches us that countries in which people are less prepared, individually and collectively, to take the risk of having to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of future generations lose their vigour and sink into cowardice, and are the firsts to be invaded, destroyed, plundered, and annihilated.
Such is their fate until enough heroes rise, whether in their own home country or next door, to allow them to regain their freedom by risking their lives for the cause.
The current pandemic tells us even more, in its own way: death is here, though we had done everything to forget its existence. Death is here, yet we flee from it without really giving ourselves all the means to fight against it. Death is here, yet we deny it without trying to make sense of it.
It is, however, in our lucid and sincere aptitude to become aware of our true capacity to take the risk of dying for certain causes that gives meaning to our life. It is this aptitude that tells us who we are and what is important to us. It also reminds us that the most important thing is to do everything we can, on a daily basis, to ensure that our neighbours and future generations are best protected against the dangers of life and are best prepared to live the best life possible, so that we do not have to sacrifice ourselves for them.
The true secret of life lies in articulating mortality.