Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning profile of children killed by hyperthermia is undoubtedly the saddest and most depressing thing you will read today–if you can even bear it. Weingarten is a master of his craft and he portrays the brokenness of the human condition with sensitivity and sympathy that will rip your heart out. Sadly, this terrible story was repeated once again on Wednesday in Georgia. One cannot help but be heartbroken for these parents. Aside from the unimaginable torment and impossible sorrow of the parents’ grief and loss, the other thing these stories all have in common is distraction.
Automobiles are 3,000-pound death machines that can kill you, your family, and everyone around you in 3,000 horribly and indescribably awful ways. We deceive ourselves that driving a car is ever routine. We expect that omniscient engineers will devise ever more complex layers of safety features and redundant fail-safes to protect us from what is inherently the most dangerous thing many of us will ever do, unless you’re into base jumping. Even the self-driving Google car will create more unintended consequences than the problems it solves.
We live in a distracted world beset with constant sensory overload, incessant connectedness, overwhelming information, and most fatally, unrealistic expectations of what the human mind is capable of handling. The parents who must live with these tragedies are not blameless, but how are any of us to survive and thrive in a culture which sets up people for such catastrophic failures in the first place? It is hard enough to live intentionally in the best of circumstances, but we live in a demanding and chaotic world of self-importance and pettiness.
Your humble writer grants no quarter to socialism in any form, but when Pope Francis criticized our economic system last week–much to the dismay of free-market conservatives–maybe he was on to something. It is not that people want to idolize money. These parents are not greedy or avaricious. Rather, people are driven to distraction in the pursuit of some small measure of comfort and security in our dangerous and uncertain world. The Pope is absolutely right that we live in a culture which places material consumption above the sacredness of the human person, but it is the culture which is flawed, not the basic premises of capitalism.
In a typical family, both parents must work to make ends meet–if children are lucky enough to have both parents present. The only affordable housing is in distant suburbs. Education is not affordable at all. We live far from our extended families and so we must entrust the care of even our youngest children to strangers. Bosses at work demand our time at all hours. Women who must return to work cannot even find time to pump breastmilk. In a 2011 survey, ten percent of Americans reported skipping breakfast and for men in their most productive working years, that figure is 18%. How many of these parents ate breakfast with their families before driving their children off to a parking lot, that seemingly most innocuous and inconsequential of all places, to die?
As a culture, we have become accustomed to instant gratification and instant feedback. This in turn drives the business world to demand ever more of employees. People struggling to get by do not have the luxury of arriving late to work or disregarding a phone call from the boss or a coworker, even though in the grand scheme of things, it can and should wait until we get to the office. The most important reason we go to work is that helpless and fragile life which might be sitting in the back seat. We must always take time to consider why we are here and why we work.
No mother can even begin to imagine something like this happening to her children. No father can read of this tragedy and not want to hold his children longer and tighter while tucking them into bed at night. It is good and right and true and natural for a mother and a father to be connected first to each other and then to their children before all else. As Pope Francis rightly observes, our humanity and most of all, the family must be the foundation of our entire culture. If we get that right, everything else will take care of itself.