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To ignore, to engage, both are “Relatively Easy”

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You should know compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy...

When I first heard the song “Relatively Easy” on Jason Isbell’s 2013 album “Southeastern,” I immediately stowed it away in the space of my brain where I keep my mental flotation/navigation devices — those pieces of art that somehow manage to provide a point of orientation in the storm of life.

There are some other things in there: a few more songs, a couple of poems, some short stories, a novel or two and a couple of paintings. There’s not much — it’s a calculus of quality over quantity — but the contents seem to do their job, for the most part.

The song came to mind this week as I thought more and more about Typhoon Haiyan and the destruction it visited upon the Philippine Islands. For this disaster, I have no real point of reference: I’ve never been to the Philippines, I don’t know anyone who lives there, I’ve never even been to that part of the world. The closest I’ve come to the Philippine Islands are the opening scenes of the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

And last week when I spoke with a North Country resident trying to maintain connections with her family in Tacloban, the city at the heart of the devastation, I was struck by just how removed from it all I actually was.

Seeing the repeated stories on the news, from the reports of food and water being dropped by helicopters to more sensational stories about those whose job it is to collect the dead — now numbering into the thousands — it is all too easy to become numb to it all.

There are bills to be paid, errands to be run, bosses to appease, family members to look after and another hundred thousand reasons to ignore what’s happening half a world away. And it’s easy to feel that whatever you do will never be enough to make a difference.

That’s why I keep coming back to “Relatively Easy.”

The song — a slow, acoustic number — is introspective without being maudlin.

And Jason Isbell, a singer-songwriter with plenty of demons in his past, does not strike me as a man who is given to over-sentimentalization.

Many of the songs on his new album, the first recorded after he got sober, are deep and dark and deal with characters with few admirable qualities but plenty of humanity.

To my mind, “Relatively Easy” is primarily about a restless soul settling down and learning to find peace and happiness in the simple things in life. As such, it does not necessarily lend itself to bigger issues of global importance, but two lines in the song touch upon the wider world and it is to those lines I keep coming back.

“You should know compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy,” Mr. Isbell sings early in the song.

And then later, “Still compared to those a stone’s throw away from you, our lives have both been relatively easy.”

Those two lines anchor the singer and the listener in a distinct place and time: a relatively privileged locale where life has its struggles but nothing compared to the suffering of people elsewhere in the world, as far away as the Philippine Islands or as near as five blocks away.

On Monday night, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Jocelyn Aznar-Beane, a native of northern Cebu in the Philippine Islands and a physician in Carthage. She, along with her medical school classmates, will be traveling to Cebu on Wednesday to spend a week working in a clinic there.

“We may be redundant in the whole scheme of things but we will have our uses,” Dr. Aznar-Beane said.

And on Saturday morning, I stopped by 817 Bronson St., where some 14 members of the Emmanuel Congregational Church were building a wheelchair ramp for 89-year-old Charmaine Sacchetti, who had a stroke this summer.

“They’re blessing me with a ramp so I can get out of the house once in awhile,” Mrs. Sacchetti said.

Indifference is understandable, even forgivable. It’s one way to deal with the overwhelming amount of misfortune that is seemingly randomly visited upon the world. Even as rescue and rebuilding efforts are just beginning in the Philippine Islands, deadly tornadoes hit the Midwest and someone broke into a 61-year-old woman’s house in LeRay. It just doesn’t stop.

But engagement is also an option. Donating some money to a charity working in the Philippines, spending some time volunteering somewhere, doing something, anything, is better than nothing.

To ignore, to engage — both are relatively easy.

Donations to help with Dr. Aznar-Beane’s relief effort can be sent to the Carthage Area Chamber of Commerce, care of Dr. Jocelyn Aznar-Beane, 120 S. Mechanic St., Carthage, N.Y. 13619.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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