Listen to the bones: hear the value of a full life

Humanity’s dark side has been on show this year: beheadings, aeroplanes downed, Americans torturing muslims, the Taleban executing children. Where is the good?

John Key’s entry into his party’s campaign launch on August 24 was amidst a phalanx of government and hired security guards.

If the Prime Minister is not free, how can we be? If he projects fear, how can we not fear? If Parliament, trembling, locks nearly all its doors, how can we celebrate democracy?

Geopolitics give cause for fear: Russia in Crimea and Ukraine, China in Hong Kong, the terror-rule of ISIS fanatics and ravages by other extremists elsewhere.

A Sudanese girl refugee said in a New York Times video on December 11: “My grandfather was killed in front of us. We cried but we couldn’t do anything.” Another talked of her father being killed. The children made mud models of everyday things of a stolen livelihood and of weapons those who stole it used.

None of this is not human.

As Steven Pinker detailed in Angels of our Nature, through history humans have humiliated, mangled, tortured and killed each other, often with judicial or priestly sanction and in line with cultural moral codes, even staged as entertainment.

Just 100 years ago Europe was engulfed in slaughter. We were in that boots-(on-the-ground)-and-all.

How are we to live with that side of humanity?

The Economist’s obituary for Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who unearthed mass graves of slaughter victims, said Snow told student helpers to “cry at night; and in the day just listen calmly to what the bones were saying”.

Snow’s bones told of lives to be respected. And Pinker had good news: that over time we have done less ghastly stuff per capita.

And there are “angels of our nature”.

Massey University’s Dr Sita Venkateswar recounted to Radio New Zealand on July 30 an interview with a woman feeding an injured boy soldier in the Arab turmoil who, she learnt from him, had killed her daughter.

She continued to feed him. “Should I have stopped?” the woman asked the interviewer. “Should I have done some violence? Is this what peacemaking is?”

A United Nations humanitarian worker described to Radio New Zealand on August 13 working with refugees from ISIS’s cruelty. Asked how he kept hope, he said: “We can’t do nothing. It’s shocking to see children dying, to see people put in this kind of fear and peril. We just have to keep doing what we can to save every life we can.”

There can be redemption.

David Cole wrote in the December 4 New York Review of Books that the United States’ “justice” system treats people “as if they are as bad as the worst thing they ever did”. The alternative: “We are all better than the worst thing we have ever done.”

There can be hope.

New Zealand Beijing businessman David Mahon wrote in his newsletter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest: “Peaceful acts of civil disobedience, especially of scale, sow seeds throughout a general population that may germinate into more comprehensive social action.”

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 illustrated the “self-assurance of the people”, historian Mary Elise Sarotte wrote in the New York Times on November 6. She quoted a young East German later telling a Stasi officer that shared suffering welded people together more strongly than shared success. “When the hammer has come down, whatever is underneath is going to hold together.”

Nature or chance hammers some people.

Kelly O’Brien, mother of a cerebral palsy son, wrote in the New York Times on March 10 of her “longing for what Teddy wasn’t” while her husband appreciated him for who he was. She made a video, not about their struggle with his disability but “about the things that made the struggle worthwhile”.

The video showed her daughter’s uncomplicated love for her brother, a love that did not come from understanding how Teddy wasn’t “normal”.

Stella Young, a physically disabled Australian with a worldwide audience, underlined that shortly before her death this month at 32:

“Difference was a terrible thing. I used to think of myself in terms of who I’d be if I didn’t have this pesky old disability. Then at 17 something shifted. I learned … that I was not wrong for the world I live in. The world I live in was not yet right for me.”

Whanganui’s Robert Martin was locked away as a child in a place for the “mentally deficient”, abused, inflicted with violence, knowing himself to be “nothing”.

Martin taught himself from stolen books, learnt a life, rose to vice-chair of the International Self-Advocacy Committee and spoke at many international gatherings and to the United Nations as it drafted a convention on the rights of the disabled.

In a sad-happy new biography, Martin echoes Young: “You can’t cure us. You can’t fix us. We are part of humanity.” And reflects Pinker: “Support, care, compassion. If we don’t have opportunities to do those things we lose something; we are not human.”

The Christmas message doesn’t come much louder. As Snow’s bones could tell us.