Friday, December 01, 2006

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

This is a question all too commonly asked: "Why can’t we all just get along?" It just seems so simple – the things people fight over are either so clear cut to us that one side is obviously wrong and the other obviously right, or they are so trivial that it is obvious to us that no one should be fighting over them at all.

Of course, upon reflection we can probably see that the question presumes that the parties involved share my point of view, which (of course) is presumed to be right, "objective," fair, rational and "obvious." If these silly people would just see things my way, wouldn’t the world be a better place!?!

Our sense of privilege prohibits us from understanding the position those involved in a given struggle. If I don’t feel their passion for their cause, if I haven’t felt their pain, this "ivory tower" position makes their issues seem small, even trivial, like trying to spot landmarks from 35,000 feet up in an airplane. What would seem incredibly large, even insurmountable, from my normal vantage point of 6 feet tall, is barely noticeable from the airplane. A 10,000 foot tall mountain would be a challenge to climb; but seen from the airplane, the steep slopes seem gradual and the peak seems little more than a rolling hill. So, the fact that I haven’t felt their pain and passion doesn’t make my vantage point more right than theirs – in fact, it may make it horribly wrong by trivializing their struggle. Then, I disparagingly state that they just ought to know better! The fact that they don’t indicates that, well, they just aren’t very smart.

On the other hand, it could be that I have felt something of their pain and passion – the pain of losing someone I love, the passion of trying to see that it doesn’t happen again, either to me or to someone else.

We Americans lead insulated lives. For us, death is an insult, a slap in the face – an obnoxious snub of our sense of entitlement. There is no doubt that we have things pretty good in the U.S., generally speaking. Our culture has become a culture of entitlement: things that used to be extraordinary gifts or privileges are now thought to be "rights" – things like peace and long life. I was struck by this last year on a trip to the Philippines, where for the first time in my life I encountered abject poverty. Here were people generally happy, but living on a subsistence level, day to day. At a cold spring, I encountered some kids swimming, hanging from trees, dropping into the water, "hamming it up" for the camera. I commented on their simple life and obvious happiness to my Filipino friend, Salvador, who reminded me that it would be true until they got sick and their parents couldn’t afford to take them to a doctor. What I take for granted wasn’t even within the realm of consideration for them.

My wife and I long ago developed a hobby of visiting old cemeteries. I’m fascinated by them – by the stories they don’t tell but to which they give clues. We’ve found old grave markers that list, for instance, six or seven children of one family, all of which died within two weeks. What happened? A flu epidemic? Starvation? How did the parents deal with such loss? Did they lose their faith? Take revenge on killers? Slip into depression? No clue – but having lost a child, I wonder. And having seen many people deal with death in any number of ways, it seems clear to me that we’re just not used to it. For us, death is no longer a part of life.

We see on TV sometimes people who have lost a loved one to a violent crime, and frequently they want revenge, sometimes disguised as "justice." They want the killer to die or to suffer. They want an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life. I wonder sometimes at the hate they seem to exude. Life has been unfair to them, truly, but why the hate? Perhaps it is related to that sense of entitlement – that sense that everything should go according to plan. And if it doesn’t, someone must answer for it! Someone must pay!

How odd that the same sense of entitlement that prohibits us from understanding someone else’s passionate struggle creates in ourselves such a hate.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of the tremendous nature of the choice we each must make between love and hate.

There is a tremendous danger in which we find ourselves by being human, a danger that consists in the fact that we are placed between two tremendous powers. The choice is left to us. We must either love or hate, and not to love is to hate. So hostile are these two powers that the slightest inclination towards the one side becomes absolute opposition to the other. Let us not forget this tremendous danger in which we exist. To forget is to have made your choice. (Kierkegaard, Either/Or).

To not have consciously chosen could indeed explain why the sense of entitlement can have such disparate results. On the other hand, to not have chosen to love others is in itself a choice to love myself – or as Kierkegaard puts it, it is a choice of the world over God:

Each person must choose between God and the world, God and mammon. This is the eternal, unchangeable condition of choice that can never be evaded - no, never in all eternity. No one can say, "God and world, they are not, after all, so absolutely different. One can combine them both in one choice." This is to
refrain from choosing. When there is a choice between two, then to want to choose both is just to shrink from the choice "to one's own destruction" (Heb. 10:39). No one can say, "One can choose a little mammon and also God as well." No, it is presumptuous ridicule of God if someone thinks that only the person who desires great wealth chooses mammon. Alas, the person who insists on having a penny without God, wants to have a penny all for himself. He thereby chooses mammon. A penny is enough, the choice is made, he has chosen mammon; that it is
little makes not the slightest difference. (Idem.)

Why can’t we all just get along? We’ve chosen the world -- ourselves! -- over God.

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