Lessons of Old Cemeteries

“Anyone who has spent an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age, and yet it is fear that defines us. We worry, we cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.” 

These lines from Daniel Gardner’s superb book The Science of Fear sum up what we should be thinking about our present times. But we don’t. Why? Because the horrid conditions we don’t experience from the past–even the relatively prosperous Victorian era–aren’t salient. We don’t smell human waste or inhale the fumes from burning trash. We don’t wend our way through malarial puddles and animal excrement as we walk our streets. We don’t experience polio, typhus or cholera epidemics that kill thousands of people around us.

If you visit a Victorian cemetery, as Gardner does in his book, you’ll see many headstones for little children and young people struck down by diseases that have been eradicated from the US. One should feel gratitude to live in this incredible age, right?

The irony of the current Ebola scare is how puny it is compared to the yellow fever, cholera and small pox epidemics that littered our history. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 killed more than half a million people in the US. As of today there has been one Ebola death in the United States.

Perspective, people! Let’s get all of our kids vaccinated! Let’s knock down those malaria numbers a few hundred thousand a year. And yes, let’s combat Ebola, but it’s not the cataclysmic threat too many fear it is.

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