“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” -Simone de Beauvoir
I used to be somewhat of an activist but now I’m just a whiner.
In college, I worked on political campaigns, marched against apartheid and the taking of American hostages in Iran. On the lighter side, I marched with 3,000 others in favor of President Rhodes instituting a Fall Break but that was more of an excuse to stop studying one chilly fall evening.
“We will stay and freeze our asses ’til Frank Rhodes cancels classes!”
Get Off My Lawn and Fix the World’s Problems
Today, social media is an outlet for millennials and baby boomer couch potatoes alike. Why sacrifice comfort when we can be outraged from our recliners?
The problems facing the world are so much more grave than they were in 1979. Over a decade of American-catalyzed conflict in the Middle East has literally changed the map. Millions of refugees pour across borders into countries ill-equipped to handle them while their friends and families drown in the Mediterranean in the pursuit of respite.
Our home planet is changing for the worse thanks to our inaction while we treat science as if it was theory.
We’ve become a society that lives comfortably on one end of the continuum until reality invades and redirects us to the more uncomfortable end.
- My land is being sold to frackers.
- My best friend can’t marry her lifelong partner.
- I can’t vote early anymore.
- My son is being deployed to Iraq.
Otherwise, my righteous rage is reserved for when The Big Bang Theory is preempted by an address from that Socialist Muslim President or the extra time it takes to drive to work because of the road construction caused by unattended infrastructure.
Apathy is the Opposite of Hate
The turning point for me was Sandy Hook. Over twenty children and educators slaughtered in their school and, despite immediate outrage and calls for a national conversation, nothing changed. For others, the Michael Brown killing was their tipping point for the bigger issues of police militarization, white privilege and a racist justice system.
Regardless, many of us now have become numb when we hear of another school shooting or an unarmed black man being shot by police or the topic of climate change being off the table as a topic for presidential debates and policy makers.
We have moments of genuine sadness or anger and then go back to our regularly scheduled lives.
The honest truth is that change requires sacrifice.
During World War II, our fellow citizens all contributed to the war effort because they understood the consequences of inaction. Men went to war and women went to work and that collective spirit moved the needle.
Today, we can’t bother to look up from our smartphones long enough to even have a conversation about pressing issues, let alone take action. Unless they affect us directly.
As I write this, the Syrian refugee crisis shows no sign of abating. Those on the front lines have made it clear that the priority is not to send money but to find places for these victims to live. It creates an interesting dilemma on a couple of levels.
First, the problem isn’t on our shores so it doesn’t feel like a priority to us. You certainly don’t hear about a widespread movement to bring refugees to America and help them. Europe will handle it, we hope.
(Of course, if the same thing occurred here with, say, eleven million undocumented immigrants seeking a better life, that would be different. Right? Uh oh…my liberal cynicism is showing again.)
Second, how willing would each of us be to sacrifice for the Syrian refugees? Would we take in someone if we were asked? That’s not an easy decision for most of us.
There would certainly be sacrifice involved if we housed, fed and cared for someone else while they became acclimated to their new home. Perhaps, we’d have to postpone putting that deck on the back of the house or taking that long-planned for trip to Cabo or even having another child of our own.
What’s the return on that human investment? If it’s not something immediately tangible, we often balk at putting ourselves out there.
Our Selfish Dilemma
The thought process becomes more about the inconvenience to our lives rather than what it would be like if the roles were reversed and we were without a home or a country that wanted us.
It applies to almost every problem facing us:
are we willing to sacrifice for the greater good? More and more the answer is no.
- Stop watering my lawn to help ease drought conditions?
- Be willing to register my gun to more easily track down the bad guys with guns?
- Vote for a local or national politician who wants a small tax increase to help fund services for the mentally ill?
- Get your chicken biscuit from somewhere other than Chik-fil-a, given their CEO’s opposition to same-sex marriage?
- Give the homeless guy you pass on your way into the office a dollar every once in a while or even just look him in the eye and say “hello“?
It all requires that we give up some of our comfort for the sake of others. We’ve become less willing to do so at a time when there’s more of us than ever before who need help from others. It’s the greatest societal irony of our time.
On a broad scale, why is being a “superpower” defined as having the ability to blow up millions of innocent people? Why can’t we be a superpower of diplomacy and humanitarianism?
On a smaller scale, why can’t “pay it forward” be a lifestyle and not a faddish hashtag movement?
To be clear, I include myself in all this. I’m full of excuses (vs. reasons) about why I don’t do more. I pretend that occasionally paying for the mom behind me at the fast-food drive-thru window is an important contribution.
To do more, however, requires a groupthink willingness to sacrifice akin to what our grandparents did.
It also requires us to recognize that opinions are not facts. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
And, finally, from a mindfulness perspective,
it requires detachment of our selves from our egos in the name of greater good and compassion.
We must be able to address tough personal questions.
- What is my responsibility to give back to humanity?
- Is it everyone’s role to help reduce the suffering of others?
- How much would I expect others to sacrifice if I lost everything in a raging wildfire or a terrorist takeover of my country?
- What’s my individual relationship with those with whom I share this planet?
These are questions we must answer for ourselves. These are questions I must answer for myself.