Things Don’t Have To Be Good For Us To Be Great
Some years ago on a car ride from Jerusalem to Caesarea, the question arose between others and myself as to what constituted “civilization.” The dialogue argued for art, music, good food, good conversation, and even good company. All of which struck me as civilized but not necessarily the defining features of a civilized society. But it did get me thinking and turns these thoughts.
The root of the word compassion is from the Latin meaning “with passion.” Compassion is passionate caring. To be indifferent to the fate of others is to live outside the passions of love and hate. A society, which is indifferent to others, is uncaring.
When the House GOP refused to cut $20 billion in farm subsidies primarily to giant agribusiness and voted to cut $40 billion from the federal food-stamp program, and the average food stamp program and the average food stamp benefits are just $4.45 per day, and two thirds of the beneficiaries are children, seniors, or disabled people, rather than personalize our disregard we institutionalize our indifference and subsidize the status quo.
“There can be no truer principle than this,” said Alexander Hamilton, “that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.” This principal determines the civilized character of a country especially in tough times. And both personally and as a society it is important to remember things don’t have to be good for us to be great. If you doubt this for a moment ask someone with little who shared a meal with someone who had nothing, or ask a guy who pulled a fellow soldier into his foxhole when bombs began to fall.
Even in tough times, corporations are among the biggest recipients of welfare in this country. Their lobbyists see to it. Poor people don’t have lobbyists. The poor fight for the crumbs. In America the crumbs may be bigger but they’re still crumbs. But let us not be confused by left or right politics. It also isn’t a few budget crumbs tossed to support dance concerts that makes this country a noble enterprise. Subsidizing the rich or the sensitive does not make us civilized.
Certainly we cannot call ourselves civilized simply by listening to classical music or drinking from porcelain teacups. Nazis listened to classical music while they marched their fellow human beings into extermination camps. Japanese Generals drank tea from porcelain teacups during the rape of Shanghai. And, lest we forget, these events are in the memory banks of some still living.
As we try to define what constitutes a just society, I’m inclined to borrow from the best – please note I said “best” – in Scripture, Old and New Testament. Here we are told to care for the “widow and orphan.” And while this is fairly simply put, it still seems to confuse many. So, here’s the bottom line: People with power are required to care about those without power. And how people with power treat those without power is the defining profile of a just society.
Professor Robert Thurman in his book, Inner Revolution writes: “We are aware of the power of brainwashing to develop fanaticism and hatred, but we fail to respect the power of positive conditioning to systematically develop openness of mind, altruistic compassion, and joyous love. We are happy when people are generous, peaceful, and loving, but we think it’s a surprise, an aberration from the norm of self-concern.”
Caring is not a political issue except as our politics fails to make caring an issue. Caring is not a matter of left and right but looking out for those who are on both our left and right. Caring is not a matter of left and right but who is left out and not who is right. Real wisdom is not right or left-brained but teaches from the heart.
“No matter how noble the objectives of government,” taught the long-shore man and philosopher Eric Hoffer, “if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion —it is an evil government.”
“What people want,” said John Gardner, “is a leadership which appeals to higher instincts.” Like the “beasts” around us we eat and drink, reproduce, excrete, and die. Like angels, within us we stand upright; have the power of speech, thought, and perception. How we integrate our base and sublime aspects determines whether we live like beasts or angels. We may no more deny what we are than diminish who we might yet become.
How things will look down the road for Terra Firma depends a great deal on whether we are also looking out for others. Caring is the measure of a civilization. It is the backbone that raises us and allows us to stand tall. Caring is the anatomic architecture of a just and civilized society.
Just as the foundation of a building determines how high it can be built, society’s foundational caring for educational, economic, environmental and social justice will determine whether we rise or fall, one and all.
This isn’t about being a ditsy cheerleader for kindness. “The three most important things to remember in life,” said the philosopher/author Henry James, “are Be Kind, Be Kind, Be Kind.” Of all the things you can give in life why not give a damn.
And again, to those who are self-excusing of caring arguing these are tough times and we don’t have the resources to be just, two contradictions.
1) On this planet right now fewer people have more and more people have less.
2) Anyone with less who has lent a hand is richer for it and feels better for it.
Things don’t have to be good for us to be great.
The Justice Project