Despite what my children used to claim, I did not grow up fighting off dinosaurs or sabretooth tigers. I have, however, always been fascinated by history; not so much the facts of events but what history reveals about the nature of human beings. For the same reason, my library holds a large number of books – poetry, novels, non-fiction – spanning most of the Dewey Decimal classification, but which have in common that they all shine some light on some corner of what it is that makes us what/who we are. Perhaps as a child I found adult behavior puzzling and have been trying ever since to better understand it. And when I contemplate not only our current world but the long, chaotic march (stumble?) of mankind, it seems to me it finally comes down to one simple question:
Am I my brother’s keeper?
For me, the answer is, “Yes”.
John Donne had it right:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Finally, it’s a question of what one values and how to best achieve the ends that embody those values. It is not really a matter of being fond of or approving my fellow humans. All too often their actions disgust and appall me, but as I mentioned elsewhere. here and here, We Are All Connected. In one sense, ‘they are me’ and ‘I am them.’ To the extent I love or hate others, I am able to love or hate myself. We may refer to some behavior as ‘inhuman’ when we should say ‘inhumane’. The fact that a human performed a act – good or bad – makes it ‘human’ by definition. We can commit inhumane acts but not inhuman acts. And let me be very clear here: there is no act so inhumane that each and every one of us could not commit it under the right [wrong?] circumstances. If you think, “I would never do THAT, you are deluding yourself at best, a hypocrite at worst. I am not Christian, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” To my way of thinking, Jesus was not equating himself with divinity but with mankind. (And to my way of thinking, that’s where the Paulist religion we today call ‘Christianity’ went off the rails).
No society has totally lived by the Brother’s Keeper’ principle, but some have come closer than others. And for whatever reasons you might conjure up, those societies have been simple, ‘closer to the earth’, intimate with Nature, have lived revolving around what Guy Clark called Stuff That’s Real instead of Mere Manifestations of Money.
Joe Bageant’s memoir Rainbow Pie captures just what a people lost when they moved (or were moved) from a labor-based, family/clan-based, community-based economy & life to the money-based economy & life. I grew up in a world much more like Joe’s than it is like the world I live in today and I want that back. Not my youth (Heaven forbid! I barely escaped it alive!) but the world where people functioned with a commonality we do not see much of today. (I can’t help thinking of the microorganisms that constitute biofilm, each organism physiologically different from its solitary state, altered to function as part of the whole. Weird where the mind takes one, eh?). I want a world with the sense of “We’re all in this together” instead of the sense of “Every man for himself”.
One could define Society and Government as attempts to formalize a Common, a Community, a Narrative of Ourselves. In that regard, it seems pretty obvious that our current efforts have come up seriously short. Governments all over the world remind me more and more of large complex machines which are running out of lubricant; over-heating, grinding gears, clanking to a stop, unable to fullfil their purposes. And the underlying societies are beginning to realize that. Older societies which have ‘cultural memories’ of a more communal history tend to be agitating in one direction and newer cultures without such histories are agitating in another direction. But all societies seem to be in a state of ferment.
Given the power we have placed in the hands of government and those who own it, flat-out rebellion doesn’t look to be a promising path. Revolutions generally leave a lot of bodies strewn about and frequently just exchange one set of assholes for another. What I see beginning to happen is people banding together to develop an alternative: first a different lifestyle (back to the land, grow-your-own food, off-the-grid, etc). then a different community. And it’s that new sense of community that is the real value to the life. One of Joe Bageant’s tales concerned people from DC who bought places in nearby rural areas and immediately put up “No Trespassing” signs and failed to integrate into the rural community and its life[style]. He contrasted that with a couple of hippies who bought an old farm, posted no signs, merged quickly into the community. The former remain outsiders, the latter are part of ‘us’.
For those who answer the question with “No, I am not my brother’s keeper”, I will fight you tooth and nail, body and brain and soul. But ultimately, I pity you, because by turning your back on your brothers, you are are turning your back on yourself. You are not ‘your keeper’ either.
When you deny the humanity of others, you betray – and forfeit – your own.