It has been a summer filled with the troubles of our time.
In Iraq and Syria, barbaric fanatics have slaughtered thousands in the name of religion. In West Africa, hundreds have died from Ebola, a particularly virulent virus. Within those horrors, however, there were acts — heinous and heroic — that gave pause to think.
One small part of the Ebola story contained the best and the worst of the human condition.
Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, and a nurse, Nancy Writebol, 59, were on a mission for the Christian relief group Samaritan’s Purse.
“As a medical missionary, I never imagined myself in this position. When my family and I moved to Liberia last October to begin a two-year term working with Samaritan’s Purse, Ebola was not on the radar. We moved to Liberia because God called us to serve the people of Liberia,” Brantly said in a statement.
“One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places. When Ebola spread into Liberia, my usual hospital work turned more and more toward treating the increasing number of Ebola patients. I held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I can still remember every face and name,” he said in a different statement.
Brantly was serving as medical director for the Samaritan’s Purse Ebola Consolidated Case Management Center in Monrovia when he tested positive for the disease.
Only one dose of an experimental serum was available. In the best of what we saw, Brantly insisted that the first dose go to his colleague. But he was given the first dose because his condition was rapidly deteriorating.
He also received a blood transfusion containing antibodies from a 14-year-old Ebola survivor he had treated.
Then Brantly and Writebol were evacuated to the United States to be treated in isolation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, one of only four facilities in the country equipped to deal with such cases.
Great interest was shown as they returned to the U.S., entering the hospital in full-body biohazard suits. The interest continued as daily hospital bulletins were more and more optimistic about their recovery. Both were then discharged.
Then a cloud appeared.
Twitter exploded with objections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received angry emails. In Arkansas, a state Senate candidate said the decision to allow the health missionaries to return was “nearly treasonous.”
Donald Trump took to social media to offer his always thoughtful observations: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!”
He followed with this: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great — but must suffer the consequences!”
Within this can be seen the same prejudice and ignorance that also infects discussions of immigration policy.
Brantly is a hero. So is Writebol. We felt for these people, had empathy for two fellow humans.
Can we show the same feeling for the thousands who have died and thousands who are infected as the disease rages unchecked through West Africa?
Empathy differs from sympathy, which is an abstract, intellectual awareness of another’s misfortune that provokes an “I feel sorry for you” reaction.
Empathy is feeling for a person because that person has dignity as the creation of God.
Solidarity, as St. John Paul II said, “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
Solidarity is the antidote for selfishness, a virtue to help being in relationship with others.
Kent is the retired editor of two archdiocesan newspapers. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.