Why should I care about you? What is it my responsibility to your safety, your basic requirements of food, water and shelter? Is it my business if you are happy or not?
If you are walking one way on a forest trail and I am coming the other, is there any reason I have to tell you there’s a grizzly on the path ahead?
It’s hard to avoid other humans, so we have to deal with each other. But, what do I owe you just because we share the same planet? Most of us follow a set of unwritten rules that govern our behavior in terms of how we treat one another. The Golden Rule—treat others as you want to be treated—is meant to be the basis of our daily governance.
So, why is it so hard? How come a lot of the time I would rather get mine than help you get yours? I believe in the basic rules of politeness and etiquette, even if they seem quaintly outdated, to ensure my behavior doesn’t harsh anyone’s mellow, so to speak.
My kids, like most, are fascinated with “bad” words. Anything that sounds faintly off color or close to any of the “big five” gets them wide-eyed and whispering. I told them there was no such thing as “bad” words, but only words that were rude and inappropriate depending where you are and who’s listening. This set off a dinner table litany of child cussing that would’ve made a drill sergeant proud but made Catherine doubt my parenting ability.
Funny story: A friend’s pre-school daughter approached her mother. “I know what the F-word is.”
The girl leaned forward. “It’s ‘shit’.”
It’s true, no matter how much we don’t want to admit it, our behavior affects others. I guess the choice we have to make is whether we care or not. And then if we do care, which I hope we all do, how far are we willing to go to ensure other people, no matter if they agree with us politically, morally, ethnically, socially, nationally or any other way, enjoy the same quality of life we seek for ourselves.
My friend Scott, senior pastor of large Manhattan church, believes our greatest duty is taking care of each other. His proof lies, of course, in the Bible, but not in the way you might think. It’s kind of mathematical. He says one of the few stories repeated by the disciples in all four gospels is the miracle of the feeding of five thousand with two fish and five loaves. What we should take from this repetition, Scott says, is that our greatest commandment is to care for each other.
Whether or not you give the Bible any credence, you have to agree the world would be a better place if we all took care of others, even strangers.
Recently, Catherine and I had a layover in Nassau, Bahamas, so we sought out an art shop a mile or two out of town to kill the time. We parked our rental downtown and then walked, arriving hot and tired, only to find the place, Doongalik Studios & Gallery, closed. A woman came out of an ante building and saw us sweaty and dejected. She took pity and gave us an exclusive tour of the gallery and her craft cottage. Then she locked up and drove us 15 minutes in bad traffic to our car. No reason, other than to be kind. Thank you, Nadine Ramphal.
This is the small watercolor by local artist, Malcolm Rae, I bought in the gallery.
In university, when I was spending my parents’ money and my time wisely, I pursued a minor in political theory. The nature of altruism, or service to others, was one of the topics hotly contested by philosophers. Thomas Hobbes, famously quoted as saying life is “nasty, brutish and short,” believed that humans are incapable of helping others no–strings-attached. “No man giveth, but with intention of good to himself,” he wrote in 1651. Nearly 400 years later his words ring sadly true.
In his book, The Road to Happiness, the Dalai Lama wonders if we help others because it’s the right thing to do or because of the feeling it gives us.
I know every time I do a good deed, deep down I hope someone’s watching.
Maybe all these great minds are right. Judging by the heroes in books and movies who sacrifice themselves for others, we all yearn to perform similarly selfless deeds. If only it wasn’t so damned inconvenient. Or maybe we just appreciate what it takes to be heroic, knowing heroism is out of our reach. The same way I watch NBA players dunk and PGA pros score in the 60s on tough courses. I’d love to be able to do what they do, but I just can’t.
I can see that’s a cop out.
There is hope. Aristotle said virtuous behavior is a learned trait, so maybe with practice I’ll get better.