I have always believed that one of the virtues of living in a free society is that its citizens develop a healthy relation to themselves and to their fellow humans. At best, they act not to look good in the eyes of their neighbors or leaders but to do the “right thing.” Western democratic cultures are not influenced by the ethos of shame as much as they are by guilt. This is probably one of the most salient differences between Arabs and Americans. Sure, both shame and guilt are mechanisms of social and self control, but they produce different psychologies and outlooks. The interesting case of an American organ donor is a good illustration of this difference.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, Mr. Zell Kravinsky, a 48-year-old wealthy developer who was once a Renaissance literature teacher, has donated tens of millions of dollars of his own wealth to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Ohio State University School of Public Health, in addition to gifts to a school for disturbed children. He has also donated a kidney to a woman he never met, a rare event in the annals of organ donation. He is a devoted husband and father to four children, who are all worried that he may dissipate his money and leave the family with nothing. But the biggest blow to this family came when he announced that he is willing to part with his other kidney (and therefore his life) to save a life more precious than his. He loves his children, but he doesn’t see them as more deserving than others. Even his surgeon has tried, and failed, to change his mind.
Mr. Kravinsky, who is white, is more than an organ donor. He is trying to live up to his deeply held conviction that all human lives must be treated equally. He wants to give his kidney to an African-American and says that “No one should have a vacation home until everyone has a place to live… No one should have a second car until everyone has one.” And so, according to this logic, “no one should have two kidneys until everyone has one.”
Although Mr. Kravinsky’s altruism may appear extreme even to those who are committed philanthropists and organ donors, such a case can only happen in societies that have long gone beyond the primitive phases of money grabbing and conspicuous consumption. Many of our chattering bourgeois spend time impressing one another with possessions and probably cannot fathom Mr. Kravinsky’s feelings of compassion and connectedness with others. Mr. Kravinsky believes that if he donated his kidney to a scientist with the potential to discover a remedy for a major disease, then dying shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. Thousands, if not millions, of lives could be saved as a result.
Doing the “right thing” for this man is more important than any other consideration. People are trying to shame him for not taking care of his own family by keeping his money and staying alive, but he is not listening. Whether he is right or wrong, we can only stand in awe at the selflessness of a man who cares deeply about his fellow humans, regardless of race or religion. His dedication to the welfare of humanity ennobles all of us. I wish we had a fraction of his spirit.