Still the Paragon of Animals?

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?”                                               –Valery Legasov, “Chernobyl”

We have all had moments in our lives when we exclaimed “How could I not have been aware of that?” We come to learn of significant things that took place in human history and are forced to admit that we were only marginally aware of the events, if we were aware of them at all. When I at last learn about situations of which I had previously been unaware, I often experience a degree of shame, and ask myself how it could be possible that I was unaware of something so pivotal. Once I realize that my own education has such a gap, I work to fill that gap with as much authentic information as I can find so that my understanding of our collective human experience is as strong as I can make it. Recently, I had one of those “gap” moments, and have sought to learn as much as I can about the event itself. It is the lessons I learned that I wish now to share.

The quote above is from the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.” I strongly recommend that any reader of these words seek out a means of viewing this five-episode masterwork of a program. Not only do the performances alone merit the attention of anyone who appreciates acting seen at its highest levels, but the program introduces us to a moment in April of 1986 which impacted and permanently altered the course of thousands of lives and carries chilling lessons for anyone living in the modern world.

After watching this program, I listened to a series of podcast episodes with the show’s writer, where I learned that many of the scenes filmed for the show were based on actual events from a book entitled Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich. Always one to seek the source material and learn as much of the actual truth as I can, I immediately put this book on hold at my local library, and was soon swept up in the actual accounts of the men, women, and children who lived through the Chernobyl disaster. I found them horrifying, heart-wrenching, infuriating…each separate account brought forth a different emotion as I delved more deeply into the almost unbelievable experiences the people involved in the Chernobyl disaster were forced to endure.

I wept for the innocence of the citizenry who knew nothing of the danger they were in from the release of radiation from the disaster. I marveled at the courage of the volunteers who, fully aware that their actions would likely prove fatal, selflessly sacrificed themselves so that countless others could be saved. The disaster could have been so very much worse than it was but for the efforts of the brave souls who rose to the challenge in the face of extraordinary risk to do whatever was necessary to help. I have always been drawn to stories, particularly true ones, that demonstrate the heroism of ordinary people that are faced with extraordinary circumstances and manage to make a difference. It gives me hope that we have it within us to overcome the many challenges ahead for our species. If we can only act with the collective will such as that demonstrated by those who answered their country’s call in 1986, then we may yet be able to avert future disasters.

The incident reminded me of the stunningly powerful forces that mankind’s ingenuity has managed to harness. I learned more about nuclear power and its generation from the study of the accident than I had ever known before, while simultaneously learning that, in addition to the brilliance required to even create such a system, that some darker elements of human nature such as greed, indifference, and the ability to obfuscate the truth can transform a miracle into a nightmare. We have such potential as a species. Prince Hamlet understood: “What a piece of work is man? How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene Two). The paragon of animals! We have put human beings on the moon, landed rovers on Mars…there is no limit to what we can achieve when the greatest of our minds can be harnessed to our collective will. There also appears, sadly, to be no limit to the depths to which we can sink when we let the baser elements of our nature supersede the nobler ones. The wiser minds, though they might say what no one wishes to hear because it is not the popular view or goes against a specific perspective, must continue to insist that the truth be pursued and that lies be exposed for what they are.

Learn all that you can about the moments in history where all future moments hung in the balance, about the men and women who so courageously sacrificed reputations, freedom, and even life itself so that the truth could be known and there would be a future for the generations to come. May they look back on us as the ones who had the wisdom, courage, fortitude, and temperance to stand tall in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and say to them, “We are ready and willing to face you, for the sake of our children and theirs.”

Let us be the paragon of animals again, defending all the others and the world we must all share.


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