Monday, August 8, 2016

How I Spent My Summer

Summer is the growing season. On the earth, and in an individual life. Spring pokes up the fragile green shoots that by summer become robust. If they’re going to grow to the sky, summer is when they’ll do it.

I spent my summer hoeing and planting and watering, with hardly a moment to spare to consider whether I was working the right plot. I had my 40 acres. I worked them hard. They were fruitful. And when I wiped off the sweat as the fall came, I surveyed what I had done with some satisfaction.

Then the cool winds began to blow and the leaves tumbled out of the trees onto the lumpy ground that now lay fallow, or if not exactly fallow, dormant, waiting for a new farmer. I had time to look around and see the other plots like mine, all waiting to be tilled, and down the road, farther than I could see, I knew there were others like me, their work done for now, resting, waiting.

Tending that plot enabled me to raise my family. That is our Darwinian imperative, and so by that primitive measure I have been a success. But as I look out over the ground I have no further wish to till, I am not exhausted, and I think there must be more I can do. Surely survival, as important as it was, as it is, is not now the end of our quest.

We evolved brains that give us the power to move mountains, to erect skyscrapers, to make breathtaking art and music. These are more than survival skills. These are the power to create new realities. But individually, we all start first on the journey of mere survival. Find a job, a mate, raise children. 

Some of us end up, by design or by chance, in fields where what we do helps others. Medicine, science, etc. I often wish I had been one of those, working on cures for disease instead of corporate tax loopholes and ways to raise capital to expand a business.

I understand that we, as a people, as a society, are the sum of our parts, and that the part we each play in that arithmetic is important. And it is true that over time the ant hill of humanity gets generally bigger and stronger, and that it could not without the individual contribution of each of us. Still…

Since I’m unlikely at this point to discover a cure for cancer, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help us do more than survive, or at least survive better. Perhaps it’s just the current political season, or the immigration fears in Europe, but it seems to me that one thing in particular stands in the way of humans living peacefully and prosperously together.

What is it? A lack of empathy.

Not for your children (well, not most of the time), not for your immediate neighbors or family, perhaps, but beyond that, in varying degrees, pretty much everyone else. Certainly we have no empathy for the bastard who cuts us off on the freeway (even though he may be rushing his son to the hospital). No empathy for the suicide bomber in the Middle East (even though he has come to believe that his martyred death is his holy duty).

The better we know people, the more we are able to see things from their point of view. The obvious difficulty is that we just don’t have time to get to know one another, especially not someone from another culture halfway around the world.

Stories can introduce us, though. The characters in our stories show us what they want and the difficulties they face. That understanding opens the door to empathy, and empathy to tolerance.

If we had that—tolerance for our rich diversity and common humanity—we could all go back to tending our plots and taking care of our families, secure in our personal safety and dignity.

I may be tending a different plot now, but I’ll always be a farmer. Telling stories calls upon the same faith and optimism as tilling the soil and waiting for the rains to come. Will the seeds dry up and blow away, or will they bear fruit? We’ll see.

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