By Eric Thomas
Click on any story involving the pensioners and you’ll see them. They stare with vacant eyes into the camera, standing in a sudden spotlight where they’d rather not be. They’re in their sixties and seventies; men and women who beat the street for decades in the center of the industrial world. They didn’t build the cars, but they made sure people were safe to do so. They put out fires, hunted down criminals and helped ordinary citizens navigate bureaucratic nightmares so they could get their building permits.
They tested the water to make sure it was safe. They picked up trash from the sidewalk. Along the way, they were made a promise of security and safety in return for that service. They fulfilled their end of the bargain. We haven’t fulfilled ours.
America has long led the world in charitable giving. If a tsunami or earthquake or fire devastates a part of the world, Americans dig to salve the wound. Images of suffering children, families or dogs reliably produce checkbooks. A similar disaster has befallen many of our neighbors, but this disaster was created by choices. People were elected or appointed to positions of power and they failed us. Leaders lied, and some of them rot in prison for their transgressions. Their victims now draw their loved ones close and brace for the coming winter wind.
Yet scroll into the comment section of any story regarding Detroit’s historic march into bankruptcy and you’ll see: “I didn’t make them that promise!” or “Serves them right” or “No one helped me!” When it comes to the elderly pensioners, many make thin excuses or shrug their shoulders. Why does anyone have this reaction? When we turn our backs, how are we any different than the people who conned them? Where’s the empathy? Didn’t we used to be better?
Where’s the forgiveness? They were promised a future that didn’t include homelessness and that promise was broken. It wasn’t their fault, but why does that matter? Even if it was their fault, aren’t they human beings deserving of our empathy? Does it burn our hands if we reach out to someone who is falling into an abyss? If there’s millions for lawyers who filed the legal briefs to bring about the bankruptcy, how is the well dry for the people who tended to the streets the lawyers walked on to deliver the papers?
A few weeks ago, many Americans were moved to tears by the story of Miles, a five-year old boy who was stricken with leukemia. He wanted to be Batman. The entire city of San Francisco made that come true. Newspapers were printed, blogs were typed, the pictures were beamed to places around the world and we sat with teary eyes, marveling at the wonder of a child who knocked on death’s door having the coolest day ever.
The President made a video thanking Miles for saving Gotham. He saved more than that. In that moment, he showed that human beings can stop stepping over each other and care. We can’t cure Miles’ leukemia, but we can make him Batman.
We embraced Miles, because that’s the best of us. When we open our hands and help someone we can all agree needs us, the collective warmth is wonderful to behold. But that moment has passed and what’s left is the harsh reality that humanity has turned inward, with troubling results.
We’ve become a society of selfies. We empower and nurture the “I don’t need anyone” attitude. Believe in yourself and it doesn’t matter what others say. Climb the ladder and burn it as soon as you reach the top. No one helped me, why should I help anyone else? If that’s true, why would you choose to emulate the people who showed indifference to your situation? Why not be part of the solution and make sure no one suffers like you did?
We used to be like that. Men with stubbly chins fought wars so their countrymen could live in peace. Women marched and died in pursuit of suffrage and rights so no one would have to live like them. Activists faced assassins bullets for a future they would never see. Now we take photographs of our reflections to demonstrate the progress we’ve made on the only thing that seems to matter: self.
If the world is a terrible place, then all of our hands made it. Politicians are elected by people. Corporations adjust to reflect taste. The reason things are bad is because we step back and hold our hands in the air rather than step forward to help. The polite fiction we share among ourselves is that these choices are made for us. The choice to not help is a choice we actively make.
We’re all living this human experience, and we have much more in common than we ever allow. We all have families, biological or found. Comfort may be defined differently by different people but we all know what it is—and we miss it when it’s gone. We all know the glow of collective belonging and we know it comes from sharing in a moment with another person. Feelings of love and forgiveness are the tentpoles of being alive and to be loved and forgiven is divine—but only when you hand it to another person will you feel the warmth of what it is to be a human being. We’re designed to be together.
These pensioners deserve help. We chose to help a five-year old with remissive leukemia be Batman. We choose to treat each other with indifference. We choose not change this. Society isn’t bad or dangerous. The people are. You and I. We.
Seriously. What happened to us?