At any particular moment in time, it may seem self-evident that people in general are foolish, ignorant, selfish, short-sighted or reflective of a variety of disappointing traits. Trump being elected, Climate Change being neglected, racism and violence not being rejected, there are many times recently that could discourage even the most optimistic views of who human beings really are.
However, while these disturbing actions may gain the most attention, what really speaks of who the majority of people in this country and the world are, is how they react to the horrible.
Watching the coverage of the devastating and ongoing flooding in Texas, what one can’t help but witness in the people using their boats to rescue strangers, reporters dropping their mikes to pull people from their flooding cars, volunteers donating their time and money to help provide for those forced out of their homes and the many institutions and facilities providing clean, safe shelters for young and old, the true nature of our shared humanity.
People can be overcome by what is worst in us, giving into their fears and anger to make decisions that are destructive for themselves and those around them but people are not so simplistic as to only be one thing in all situations. Some may be resistant to see the suffering of others around them in society for emotional and political reasons but when the suffering can’t be denied, many override their worst instincts with compassion and determination.
It is too bad that it sometimes requires a tragedy to unite people in purposeful humanity, wanting to help each other out of empathy and a sense of duty to help protect the lives of other human beings.
I and millions of others witnessed that first hand in the aftermath of the massive 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles. We were at the epicenter where the quake measured around 7.0, whole streets of buildings collapsed, water mains broke and gushed, electricity was cut off and as aftershocks rattled through the pitch black night, people came out into the streets. People who may have lived next door to each other but never met and those who knew each other, gathering together in an instinctual sense of shared humanity. As anyone who lived through that time can affirm, for months afterwards, there was a closeness and a compassion in the city that was very welcome but unusual. We had all shared a moment of great danger and it brought a city of millions together. All of the minutia that stacks up around us, the many things that divide us and devalue the importance of the lives of others were stripped away for a period of time. Eventually though, it all crept back in as it always does and again obscured our views of each other in that genuine, human way.
As fate would have it, I flew out of New Orleans the day before Katrina hit. Knowing people there and around the state, I heard of horrible events and outrageous living conditions many had to cope with during and long after the city flooded. Some of the worst traits in human beings surfaced but for the most part, there was an overflowing sense of compassion. Residents in Baton Rouge and other parts of the state as well as Houston and other parts of Texas, opened their doors to bring in complete strangers from the flooded streets of New Orleans to give them shelter. Donations and volunteers were plentiful and people all over the country and the world contributed to help out those who endured and lost so much.
What is happening in Houston right now is that same thing. Faced with this ongoing disaster, the best in people rises to the surface, people’s humanity and compassion.
Just as responding to the explosion of hatred and bigotry, people came together in large numbers in Charlottesville and many other cities to stand up against it with the power of conscience and humanity.
In response to the threat that the election of Donald Trump represents to so many in our society and the world, women led the biggest protest in U.S. history after his inauguration and protests of magnitude against this destructive would-be tyrant and manufacturer of hate continue with no end in sight. People driven by conscience and empathy especially for those who are the most vulnerable display what is best in us as human beings.
Philosophers say that existence is a necessary dynamic of dualities, good and evil, darkness and light, life and death. Each side requires the other to exist in opposition to it in order to exist itself.
History shows that Americans generally don’t act preemptively against threats. Voters aren’t patient enough to support long term plans for battling Climate Change (and floods like Houston is facing), restructuring the economy or health care, etc. Change is disruptive and scary to many and no matter how gradual, often results in stubborn resistance and push back (imagine if voters hadn’t panicked over Obamacare and left Dems with a majority in 2010, how many accomplishments like a massive jobs/infrastructure bill, environmental legislation and repairing a tax system that favors the wealthy could have been accomplished…and maybe even disaster preparedness and rebuilding of dams and levees such as those in poor shape now threatening Houston).
The unfortunate de facto truth about our society is that in order for most people to act in their best interests, they need to suffer severely enough to push off the comfort of apathy and the status quo.
And it is important to note that no one in Houston is asking the people rescuing them if they’re Republican or Democrat, what religion they are or spurning their help because they’re a different race. In this window of time during and after a tragedy that unfortunately, eventually closes again, Houstonians and all Americans around the country who want to help them are demonstrating the humanity that is at the core of who we are.
It shouldn’t take a disaster for humanity to rise up and override the division and pettiness so pervasive in human beings. In an ideal world, when we wake up every morning, we should remind ourselves of the tragedies that brought out the best in us, know that we are those same people and demand of ourselves to be those people every day of our lives.
It’s a difficult proposition, day-to-day life and society have a natural gravity that pulls us into more narrow and divisive mindsets, drawing us too deeply into serving our fears and anger instead of our compassion and empathy for others.
It is a choice. When the winter holidays come, people steer back towards that path of humanity because what’s being celebrated in that time of year is our humanity and love (and of course doorbuster bargains). We choose to do that for a fraction of a year voluntarily. During the year, we may return to that less compassionate sensibility (though some do remain just as compassionate) but may be pulled back to our humanitarian focus when a disaster occurs that threatens the safety or lives of others.
The age old question is, “Are people born good then learn to become bad or born bad then learn to become good?” It is far too simplistic a question though to assume such absolutes of anyone. Human beings seem to be like a pint of Ben And Jerry’s, depending on the spoonful you scoop out on a particular day, we may be full of nuts or we may be gooey sweet. We have all of these various mix-ins inside us (that are sometimes very mixed up) but what surrounds everything and holds everything together is that (frozen) milk of human kindness.
Right now, people of conscience have many directions to move in, it’s critical for us as a society to be able to multitask when we have to. Most urgently, our friends, family and fellow human beings in Houston need our help and compassion right now and for weeks and months to come. All of our fellow human beings being threatened by Trump’s incitement of the neo-nazi/white supremacist/Alt-Right movement need defiant and unwavering support and protection. The most vulnerable human beings in this country, the undocumented, the poor, the oppressed, need the majority of Americans standing with them as an unmovable object. The citizens of America and the world, threatened by the greed and deranged narcissism of the man in the White House and others like him in North Korea, Russia, The Philippines, Venezuela, etc., need to come together in their shared compassion and humanity to overwhelm and disempower them.
Some say that the ignorance and gullibility of the people should never be underestimated. Sometimes, they may be right but when the consequences of that cause human suffering, it would be foolish to underestimate the power of humanity and compassion that can flow from human beings.
Stay strong, Houston, we’re with you!