We have abandoned each other. Somewhere along the line we forgot our obligation to help one another. Everyone in the US, myself included, is howling about global and national problems. So much sound and fury. We agree that there are problems, and that bad people out there are causing problems, and that we have to pick the right leader to go fix all of those problems. We disagree about who exactly to pick to fix everything, but it seems the consensus is we just need to get the right person in charge and it will all get sorted out. The reality is the problems were caused by all of us and won’t be solved unless we take responsibility for those around us. It isn’t enough to have thoughts and prayers and ‘raise awareness’ via bloviating on social media; we must take action to render aid to those in our community who need it. It isn’t enough to merely vote and hope for some powerful group of people far away in the capital to come figure out how to clean up our messes. We must care for one another.
We have become like so many whiny children appealing to one parent or another make to all our problems go away. I won’t say there’s no difference between who is elected to our nation’s highest office. Far from it: that decision will change our world significantly. I will say it isn’t enough to just vote. It isn’t even enough to elect the right person. Even if we were electing a Supreme Potentate for Life, and not just a president, that ruler wouldn’t be able to set right what we have collectively mislaid. Don’t misunderstand me, I know leadership matters, but it isn’t everything. There will be no lasting solution to the problems we face if we refuse to both acknowledge our personal responsibility to respect one another as humans and, even more importantly, to act on that respect by providing material and social support to those who need it most.
It is so easy and feels so satisfying to sit back and have good and right opinions about everything. We get to feel like we care without actually doing anything, but what does it mean to say I care about something if I never actually take action? What does it mean to say I care for the needy if I never provide for their needs? It means I don’t actually care, not really, not in the way that matters. It’s easy to criticize and lament and complain about all those problems and the people causing them, but hard to actually do something about it. Something needs to be done, though, and it’s irresponsible to assume someone out there will do it for me, for us. It’s foolish to think simply selecting and electing the right people will reverse a culture that is sick down to its roots, right down to you and me.
It is lonely living a time of division and discord. It is troubling to feel as though you are surrounded by enemies who oppress you with their madness and irrationality. The dread of a an uncertain future accumulates in the belly as a nausea. It poisons idle time. It drives us to distraction. We lose sleep. Dark days and long nights. We think, or at least I think if only, if only, as if there were some easy fix. I know for certain it’s lonely for the scientist trying to illuminate the truth for a culture that seems to have contempt for truth. It must be lonely to be the police officer trying to do good in the face of overwhelming social problems, to risk their lives for an apparently ungrateful public, to resist the pressure to react emotionally. I have read about the isolation of the veteran returning from a physically and mentally destructive tour to a society they are unprepared to live in, to suffer the indignity of being treated either as merely a symbol of something good or a perpetrator of something evil. An increasing number of older people are left unemployed and feeling unwanted and alone by a society obsessed with youth and novelty that no longer values wisdom, as if the hard work they did during their working lives added up to nothing. The list goes on and on. The world is growing darker, it seems, and the future is bleak.
Of course there are massive structural changes necessary, but those changes might not ever come. I suspect they won’t, not in the way we need them to. The cavalry isn’t coming no matter who is elected. Over the last sixteen years we have had equal time with both stripes of presidents and, somehow, problems persist. There’s no reason to believe the next president will be any more able to click their heels and transport us to some better place, but plenty of reason to believe they will simply make things worse. We don’t need to just cower and grouse, though.
I hold this truth to be self-evident that the surest way to rebuke the darkness is to shine a light. It’s impossible to lose faith in the kindness of humanity when we, ourselves, show kindness. We can’t lose hope of rescue when we rescue others. There is clemency wherever we grant it and love wherever we show it. We may choose to be a light shining in the darkness.
We aren’t alone. We are surrounded by people like ourselves trying to live well, to do good, and failing in so many ways. We must recognize the essential humanity of one another if we’re going to even imagine a solution to our problems, let alone implement them. This is not a fantasy novel, there are no true bad guys or good guys, only humans reacting in human ways to complicated situations. It feels less isolating to see the goodness and vulnerability in those around us. Empathy and respect allows for the possibility to making connections, even brief and small, that make us feel less alone.
It takes real work to reject our lazy brain’s habit of categorizing people based on simple heuristics like how they dress or how they speak or what kinds of bumper stickers they display. It’s often hard to see a person underneath all the nonsense, especially when they person may not see us as a person, but merely as a symbol they don’t like. Seeing the humanity in others won’t compel them to see it in us. However, it’s a lot easier to handle jerks when you know they’re not your sworn enemy, but merely people who probably just need a snack and a nap. Everyone has a reason for doing what they do. Most of the time that reason is impersonal, mundane, and if we knew the reason we would be more sympathetic to the person in front of us making it so hard to sympathize with them.
We aren’t going to bother doing any good for others if we don’t belief they are worth helping. It’s easier to invent reasons to deny the humanity of others, to excuse ourselves from caring about them. There’s no reason to help someone if you believe they aren’t worth it because they’re just too lazy, or they’re foreign, or they’re on drugs, or they’re felons, or they’re some other category you’ve invented to absolve yourself of treating them with dignity. But if you truly believe humans are merely human, not divided into human and non-human monsters, then you can’t help but see your own capacity for weakness. It could be me in the gutter, strung out on drugs, or in prison. It could be you, too. It feels much less lonely to live in a place where aid is given to whomever needs it by people who care enough to do so. Whenever we neglect anyone—but especially when we neglect categorically—we risk exposing ourselves to neglect. Even if you have room in your heart only for yourself you ought to see the utility in helping build a society of robust mutual aid.
Look at all those great words and opinions, the best words, really, great words all around. So what? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s all just vanity. I’m speaking now to decry the act of merely speaking and the irony and futility is not lost on me. It’s good and necessary and right to open our hearts and minds to the fundamental sanctity of all people, but it’s meaningless without action. I don’t mean it’s just kinda lame, I mean there is zero merit to whatever nice thoughts float through our heads. It’s virtually meaningless to waste calories on virtue-signaling of any kind. Only actions matter. It is what we do that makes us good, insofar as we are good. It isn’t enough to just get by. If I, or you, or anyone wants to think of themselves as good quality people they must take action to justify that belief. Nothing is going to get better unless we go make it better.
If we don’t do good, if we fail to act, our failures will be collected for all time. Not by any divine spirit, but by our own conscience. Knowledge of our cowardice will find us in the small still hours. Memories of failing to do right will haunt us. They haunt me, anyway. There appears no material or chemical comfort potent enough to erase the feeling of being insufficient. We ought to live a life we can respect, that we know is good because we have real tangible evidence of that goodness in the world. How much good is enough? There is never enough. This is real life, it matters, there are stakes and risks and losses. The only real way to avoid guilt and shame is to do right. Our excuses might satisfy others, but they will never satisfy us, not really. Only the truly insane can avoid seeing their own weakness.
Taking actions that do good and do right requires wisdom and courage and sacrifice. There is no nice bulleted list to guide us. It isn’t enough to intend for actions to be good if they do real harm. It isn’t enough to think of ourselves as good if we lack the faculties to good. Sometimes it’s obvious when and how to do good, but most often it isn’t. Leaving a person better than you found them requires knowledge and tact. It’s the easiest thing in the world to attempt good and just end up making things worse. We must be always ready to admit fault, to apologize and make amends, and to change our attitude and approach whenever evidence indicates we were previously in error. We must be humble. A well-developed sense of empathy goes a long way in illuminating the path forward. Seeing things from the point of view of someone else is practically a super power for all the abilities it gives someone to navigate the world without causing harm.
That said, it’s possible to do good without running much of a risk of doing inadvertent harm. There are basic things everyone needs that we can all help provide: sustenance, shelter, clothing, and so on. There are many ways to help, big and small. There is plenty of need in our communities for all kinds of aid, much of which doesn’t demand anything extraordinary. Just a single kind act can illuminate an otherwise overwhelming darkness for someone suffering alone. Kindness also begets kindness; those we help are more able to help others, or return the favor in our own hour of need.
This is how we solve it. This is how we save ourselves: we save one another. We give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, said to the sick, comfort to the prisoner. It isn’t enough to wait around and hope some powerful leader will come to our rescue. Perhaps let’s forget as much as we can about right and wrong thinking and categories and tribes and counter-tribes and simply find those who need help and work to help them because they are human and therefore sacred. Whomever has eyes to see and ears to hear and hands to work may do good, and wherever good is done there is hope. We can help each other. We can be lights shining in the darkness.