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The journey through existence is always teaching us lessons. If we are observant, we can learn so much just from our personal experiences and those of the people around us. Interesting creatures that we are, people are often inspired by the stories of other people and their struggles and triumphs. Dramatic productions have entertained people through the ages. Even ancient people recorded their stories on cave walls. Some experts have claimed that these early writings indicate the rise of civilization. I believe that civilization can, in fact, be defined and judged by the value placed on life.

The internet is a veritable smorgasbord of information that is sometimes difficult to wade through to find accurate and truthful sources. There is a story that floats around attributing a beautiful and thoughtful sentiment to the anthropologist, Margaret Meade:  One day a student asked anthropologist Margaret Meade for the earliest sign of civilization in any given human culture. He expected the answer to be a clay pot, or perhaps a fish hook or a grinding stone. Her answer surprised him. She said she believed the earliest sign of civilization was “a healed femur”.  The femur is, of course, the thigh bone.  In a society based on hunting and gathering, a person with a fractured thigh bone would be unable to care for themselves and useless. Meade explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, reigns. Someone with a broken femur would simply be allowed to die. But a healed femur showed that someone cared. Someone had to hunt and gather food for the injured person until his leg healed. Someone had to provide care for the person who couldn’t care for himself. She said, “The evidence of compassion was the first sign of true civilization.” 

Compassion has been very much in the focus these last few months as we have seen how Covid-19 has led to many changes in the lives of people around the world. Amid closures and cancelations, we have also had the reminder that we do value life. While some governments enforced quarantines and lockdowns, others closed schools and encouraged social distancing. All of these measures were done in an effort to slow the spread of the disease that has proven to be fatal, especially to society’s most fragile members. The collective message is that we want to prevent the loss of life, and we’re willing to do what it takes to each do our part.

We want to prevent the loss of life because we recognize that each life is incredibly valuable. It is the details, the connections, the stories that make us feel that on a deeper level. Watching the number of deaths grow on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center website causes sadness, to be sure, but learning of the widowed mother of six who won her fight with breast cancer then died from Covid-19 drives us to tears. It is to prevent the loss of individual lives that we must be willing to make the small sacrifices of avoiding large groups and staying home as much as possible.

Perhaps this would be a good time to also consider other ways in which we can individually and collectively show that we value life. With heart disease and stroke consistently topping the list of causes of death worldwide, simple steps we can each make to reduce the risk of these include improving our diets and exercising more. We can show that we value the lives of the unborn by volunteering at, or donating to, life-sustaining organizations like pregnancy resource centers and women’s shelters. Because all human life is also interconnected with the life of the planet, we can consider ways we can continue to improve in ecological areas, such as reducing our dependence on single-use plastics or spending more time unplugged.

This month, April 22, 2020, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. That is just ten days after the Christian celebration of Easter, which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I hope that this month, and in continuing months, you will spend time thinking about the gifts of this life, and how you can better show your commitment to life culture.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For indeed that’s all who ever have.” ― Margaret Mead, The World Ahead: An Anthropologist Anticipates the Future

If you’d like to read some other quotes from Margaret Mead, you could start here.