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If all of us carry both the potential of the hero, and of the reverse, ready to emerge when the opportunity occurs, what does that mean to us when we all share the same living space and resource pool? How do we as a nation, or even larger as a species, deal with each other?
Time was, when a barn caught fire in the night, everybody turned out to help put out the flames. Early the next morning, they got back up to help rebuild. Some built, some carried materials; others saw to it that everyone got fed so that the work could continue.
Nobody asked for pay, or for concessions. Why? When it wasn’t your barn? Because next time, it might be — and you knew that you’d then need help yourself. Because it was a neighbor who needed your aid. Because that’s just what responsible adults do in the face of a disaster in the community. It’s a human thing.
Today we hear loud cheers from an audience when a question is asked about what should happen to a person without health insurance who falls terribly ill, and an anonymous member of the crowd yells “let him die.” Today, if a barn or house catches fire, somebody may remember that flames can spread, and therefore might be motivated to at least call 911. Or not.
We don’t have to cast very far back at all to recall horrific pictures of prisoner abuse done by Americans in uniform in a foreign land, or to hear the numbing words of a former high US official seeking to justify a cold policy of harsh torture.
We don’t have to cast very far back at all to recall horrific pictures of prisoner abuse done by Americans in uniform in a foreign land, or to hear the numbing words of a former high US official seeking to justify a cold policy of harsh torture. The very same acts for which our own government severely punished former enemy officers become somehow acceptable, even exalted — when our officers use them on foreigners, on “them” to somehow protect “us.” These are unfortunately human things too.
Yet there are instances everyday when individuals rise to exhibit the far and marvelous end of the human scale. Strangers still turn heroic, going far beyond anyone’s expectations — even their own. This, too, is part of what we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from these examples? It’s time to recognize the truth, and its challenge.
Any of us could suddenly shine brightly. Just as any of us could turn into something else, something we and others might later look back upon with horror. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, writing in “The Lucifer Effect; Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” talks of the three key factors of System, Situation and the Individual in determining what course actions will follow. It truly can go either way. The banality of evil, or the banality of heroism — or anywhere along the scale between the two.
If all of us carry both the potential of the hero, and of the reverse, ready to emerge when the opportunity occurs, what does that mean to us when we all share the same living space and resource pool? How do we as a nation, or even larger as a species, deal with each other? To create Systems so to affect the Situations in such a way that individuals are encouraged towards desirable outcomes will take the concerted effort of a community.
Most of us no longer live in agrarian settings, or in the town in which we were born anymore. What does “community” mean in this fast-paced, hyper-mobile social -media and membership culture all around us? When we may have a much closer relationship with someone on the other side of the globe than we do with the people on the corner? We’re wanderers in a very different land and time.
There are advantages to our modern world, but they come with costs, too. We have no reliable connection to the old values that our great-grandparents knew as basic reality. Or do we? More to the point: Can we afford not to? Membership in a community necessarily carries with it the obligation to think about both the needs of the community and those of the least of its members.
In Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Christmas Present forces Scrooge to view a terrible sight of imminent destruction, and warns: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
The disaster foretold was for all, not just Scrooge. His personal wealth, amassed with such insistent dedication, would not preserve him. The lessons of history and everyday life all around us are plain. There is but one result when it’s every man for himself; when the gaps between have and have-not, know and know-not become too great for too long.
So here is the challenge that confronts all of us: to effectively address Ignorance and Want. The huge size of that work requires that all are involved, we dare not shrug our shoulders and turn away, hoping that someone else will take care of it. The first task is for us to begin to remember and rediscover both as individuals and collectively that we are a community, and are communal beings.
The key to that journey is recognizing the values that we share, the things in common that bring us together. What is the common core that defines who we are? What is the meaning of what we do in the course of a day as we interact together? Our great-grandparents, and those who came before them, learned and lived their values, and taught their children through the telling of stories.
Today, the sounds and images coming from Occupy Wall Street in our cities are carrying on this tradition.
Today, the sounds and images coming from Occupy Wall Street in our cities are carrying on this tradition. It is in the telling that we show our own values even as we offer to pass them on. A choice is being offered, the opportunity to make some values our own, and in the adoption, to join hands and come together.
This challenge that we face is not a new thing, though the pace and the immediacy of connection in our modern world increase the pressure. Common sense makes the case that your personal chances for success are enhanced if you’re a member of a functioning community. But there is a deeper reality to be acknowledged. The consequences of poor choices are not limited to the individual actor, the effects can spread to engulf all.
The English theologian and poet, John Donne, taught us that “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…” The proof of that teaching is ready to hand in the news of the day. A threat of economic default in a country far away creates shock waves that are immediately felt next door. A disease once known only on a different continent is found in a member of our own family. Donne and Scrooge still have something vital to say to us. “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”