"You don't sound as compassionate as the other people."
That was my wife's reaction when she read yesterday's Salem Statesman Journal Rapid Response piece, which featured short responses from newspaper subscribers who have signed up to answer editorial queries.
Download Rapid Response: Short takes on two big questions
This week featured two questions. Here are my answers to each.
Q. As Americans, what should our response be to the global suffering?
A. Let's be honest: We have no idea what the suffering of people half way around the world, or even next door, is like. Our compassion is conceptual. We try to imagine how we would feel if we were in a dreadful situation we've never experienced. So I don't try to respond in any special way to suffering. There's no point.
— Brian Hines, Salem
Q. What can we do as individuals this week to make the world a safer, saner, more peaceful place?
A. The world is not our responsibility. We are responsible for what we can do close to home, which includes what good citizenship used to be about: participating in every election and making well-informed voting choices. I'm tired of being asked to do the job of elected officials.
— Brian Hines, Salem
Since Rapid Responders only get 50 words to express themselves, I'll use my blog to expound further on what I was trying to get at.
First, I faced a choice when I sat down to answer the questions. Be honest, or say something fake. I decided to write what felt true to me. I'm glad I did, partly because other people who answered these questions had similar responses.
Dissembling is a big problem that prevents humanity at every level -- local, state, national, world -- from solving our other problems. Our ability to sit down and honestly talk with each other has gone way downhill.
Political, religious, economic, and cultural polarizations drive us into a maze of closed-off corners where almost everybody we associate with agrees with us. We get into the habit of repeating familiar dogmas, losing the ability to discern how we really feel, and how reality outside of our closed-off corner really is.
So honesty is the first and most important policy in ameliorating suffering. Disagreements can be resolved only when we truly know what we are disagreeing about.
Like I said, I don't know what it is like to be a Syrian rebel, an Islamic extremist, a Jewish zealot, a Ukrainian nationalist, or anybody else for that matter. Heck, I don't even know what it is like to be my wife, and I've been married to her for twenty-four years.
Thus imagining what a situation of suffering is like doesn't get me, or anyone else, very far. As other Rapid Responders noted, we Americans have a habit of dashing in and trying to fix complex international problems without understanding what the hell it is we're doing.
Self-righteousness is a terrible motivation for helping other people. So is compassion, even, if an emotional feeling of "I must help" isn't accompanied by a solid grasp of what is possible, what is needed, what the situation demands.
I believe each of us has a natural wisdom in this regard.
Our conscious minds are like the small part of an iceberg that is visible, while a much larger mentality lies beneath the surface. I trust that when I'm moved to do something for someone else, this is a wise decision my brain/mind has come up with, largely unconsciously. I try not to over-think or second-guess myself.
That way lies madness, or at least intense aggravation. Every day my wife and I get lots of emails, letters, and phone calls from organizations begging for our help. Each cause is described as crucial, vital, earth-shakingly important. If we don't act now, disaster awaits.
Which, leaving aside the marketing verbiage, likely rings true for those deeply concerned about the cause. The Statesman Journal chose a few examples of global suffering to center its editorial page theme around.
Download Summer of Human Suffering
Over Ukraine, a passenger plane is shot from the sky for reasons unknown and by groups uncertain. In the Middle East, violence rocks Iraq, Syria, Israel, Gaza and elsewhere. From Africa to the Americas, violence based on religion, ethnicity, economics and politics uproots millions from their homes. Drug cartels run parts of Mexico, and their tentacles sink deep into Central America, Africa and the U.S. Parents seeking hope and a better life for their children send them on a covert, uncertain journey to the U.S. Ebola, a catastrophic disease with an exotic name, rages in Africa.
OK. But there is so much more to be concerned and compassionate about. Trying to solve every problem in the world will drain our well of concern and compassion bone-dry.
Our ability to make positive changes close to home is hugely greater than our capacity to alter events halfway around the world.
Yet it is easier to think than to act. So it is possible to feel self-righteous about our compassion for others just because we're thinking about the suffering in other parts of the globe, which takes the pressure off of us to actually act to make things better right here in Salem.
I'm disturbed by how poorly our elected officials are performing these days. This is most evident on the federal level, where Republican obstructionism has taken the notion of a "do-nothing" Congress to an unheard-of level.
However, the problem is ubiquitous. The Salem City Council, Marion County Board of Commissioners, State Legislature -- they all are doing nowhere near what they should to solve pressing social, environmental, and economic problems.
Like I said in my Rapid Responder answer, things have changed. My wife and I are baby-boomers. We've reminisced about how often our parents felt the need to phone or write elected officials to get them to do something that needed to be done, or make donations to meet a pressing community need.
Not often, and my mother was a highly political person.
Back then citizens trusted, by and large with good reason, in representative democracy. Democrats and Republicans worked with each other. They compromised. Their focus was, pretty much, on what was good for the country, not for their political ambitions.
So big things were done.
The United States went to the moon, built the interstate highway system, formed Medicare and Medicaid, passed Civil Rights legislation, created environmental protection agencies. In high school my civics teacher told us our main duty was to educate ourselves about issues and candidates, then be sure to vote for our elected representatives.
They were then supposed to do the governing. Spend tax dollars wisely. Solve problems. Address pressing national and international issues.
I long for those days. Now my wife and I are met with constant communications saying that if we don't email, phone, write, contribute, whatever, those idiots in Washington aren't going to do such-and-such that is good, or will do such-and-such that is bad.
Huh? When did it become my responsibility to do the job of elected officials? Weren't they elected to make decisions, right wrongs, put this country on a positive course? I'm tired of being made to feel like the burden of governing is on my shoulders.
John Kerry and Barack Obama are capable of dealing with international suffering and calamitous events. I'm not. No ordinary citizen is. So I have a problem with the basic premise of the Statesman Journal's recent editorializing.
Yes, compassion is crucial. We live in an interconnected world. However, our elected officials have the primary responsibility of addressing the sorts of problems raised by our local newspaper. What we do here in Salem will have essentially zero effect on those global problems.
We can, though, work to make things better close to home.
Thus I wish more of the Statesman Journal's news and editorial attention would be placed on local issues and concerns, and less on problems beyond our ability to markedly influence.