If the Good do Nothing

My wife April and I are both troubled by where we see things heading. My worry focuses these days  on whether American democracy will survive. My wife’s central concern involves the gathering crisis caused by the destabilization of earth’s climate. Virtually all our friends share our concerns.

We’ve been surprised, however, at how many people who truly care about such issues nonetheless aren’t doing anything about them.

I spoke the other day, for example, with an old family friend who expressed considerable pessimism about whether our constitutional order will survive the next few years. As he bemoaned the ineffectuality of the Democrats in confronting the authoritarian movement the Republican Party has become, and decried the indifference of the people in his retirement community to what the future may hold for their descendants, I encouraged him to see whether he could stir some of those people to join him in taking action.

But as we talked, I discovered that — though he was deeply informed about the crisis, and had strong feelings about it — his orientation toward the drama was purely that of a spectator. Like the fan of some NFL team, he cared passionately about who won. But he didn’t imagine that, in this world, every citizen is also one of the players.

That made an impression on me because April had lately been telling me about her own somewhat kindred experiences.  She remarked on how many of her friends – though they shared her alarm at how the values they shared were now under serious threat — nonetheless did not take on the task of protecting those values.

As she described these interactions, I was struck by how each of the “reasons” for inaction she encountered pointed to some spiritual challenge we all face in our relationship with the wider world.

Sometimes the reason would be “I’m so busy.” And it is true, people’s lives are very full. Admittedly, for many people, making a living and raising a family legitimately leave little time for acting on behalf of the wider world. But at our age, at this point, a lot of our friendships are with people who are retired.

Surely it is to their credit when retired people have a range of interests that is rich enough that they can fill their days with activities that are worthwhile and rewarding.

Yet, when the stakes for future generations are as terribly high as they clearly are with regard to this climate crisis, or regarding whether Americans might soon be compelled to live under some authoritarian regime, don’t wisdom and goodness challenge even the “busiest” person to carve out some time to devote not to what’s intrinsically most rewarding but to what is extrinsically most urgently needed?

April has conjectured that maybe the issue is that so many of us are so comfortable. We’ve got rooves over our heads and food to eat; our society continues to function (even during this pandemic); we can speak our minds without being sent to concentration camps. And the many billions of dollars worth of damage being inflicted on the nation annually by increasingly extreme weather is still only a fraction of our national economy.

It’s true: what comes naturally to us is to perceive reality in terms of what we ourselves are experiencing right now. It takes an act of imagination to give weight not only to what others are experiencing now, but to what people are likely to experience in the future — unless we turn back from where we’re heading.

An act of imagination combined with compassion: that’s what it would seem to take for even people blessed with lives of comfort to act — in the present — as if the potential suffering of people in the future mattered to their own hearts.

Sometimes – when people who seem to care nonetheless do nothing — the reason would be a feeling of being so small in relation to the magnitude of the problem. (Whether it be America’s political crisis, or the growing turbulence in our climate system.) Trying to affect things so huge seems futile.

That’s an understandable feeling, certainly. But we’ve seen in history how people have been able – by an act of what might be called “spiritual imagination” – to transcend that debilitating sense of futility.

(We’ve seen, for example, how in World War II the whole nation operated together – the 16 million men in uniform, and the countless people helping the war effort on the home-front – to meet the challenge of that time.

(Each individual person – fighting in the South Pacific or in North Africa, or folding parachutes or growing “Victory Gardens” – could hardly claim to be having some decisive impact. But they recognized that they were not just isolated individuals playing bit parts, but were part of a larger Us with a shared purpose, all of whose efforts added up to something Big—ultimately big enough to protect what Americans held sacred.)

Some major spiritual dimension seems involved with almost all the challenges we face in life.

And in this context, what comes to mind is a famous quotation (evidently from the famous English philosopher of “Liberty,” John  Stuart Mill):

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [people] to do nothing.”

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