News, Column

A Shared Humanity

So often we are called “men and women for others,” and it’s likely that most of the time, we are. We do service, we try to be good to those with whom we share a campus and a city, and we try to intellectually engage ourselves with the overt injustices that face us every day so that we might find a way to change them. This we do, and I am proud of that.

But this is like a switch that we turn on and off. One week we’re on a service trip in El Salvador being global citizens, but the next we’re walking right by the presumably homeless man who sits outside of Reservoir Liquors. Even if we notice him, rarely do we do anything. Unlike most writing that starts like this, I’m not going to spend the rest of the column preaching that we should. (We should, but that’s not what this is about.)

That man has a copy of Where Is God When It Hurts?, a book meant to help people understand and cope with their suffering. I noticed it the other day when he had left his things on the sidewalk, a little reminder of his humanity that I’m sure he never thought anyone would stop to notice, yet one that left me both heartbroken and disoriented. Not because I hadn’t seen him as a fellow human before, but because I saw him as a human who suffered along with me and who, like me, probably thought deeply about the world. No longer did he seem to me a charity case. He wasn’t just sitting there all day suffering-here was a man grappling with the same fundamental frustrations of life that Bertrand Russell expressed in the prologue to his autobiography, the so-called “suffering of mankind.” Russell felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness because he “[longed] to alleviate this evil” but could not, so he, too, suffered.

We-those who help-are not the only men and women for others. So often we think of ourselves as the helpers, delighting in our ability to do that job.

We make the world a better place. We give genuinely and without expectation because we know we have been put in the privileged position. This is what troubles me.

We, though safe and warm at night, are not the only ones able to give.

When I looked that book up on Google later on, I realized that it isn’t just about selfishly understanding our own struggles, but learning to cope with others’. He was not only looking inward at his own suffering, but also out at that of his fellow men.

He could give to me in a real and tangible way, not just because his situation could open my eyes to human suffering, but because the ability to give comes not only from financial privilege but also from simply trying to empathize with our fellow men and women. So often we’re instructed to see others as equal to us because we’re all created equally, but then we’re missing part of the point. We are also equal to each other because we all have something to give, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

When we walk by that man, I hope that we will all first stop and do something, even if that means having a conversation. I hope second that we can start to think differently about our existences in relation to others by thinking not in terms of the seemingly positive power dynamic of helpers and receivers, but in terms of true parity.

We are not saviors. We all suffer in some way, and in that mutual suffering is the unfathomable kinship of mankind. We must give respect not because he without anything to give still deserves respect, but because he does have things to give, even if they might not be immediately obvious.


February 23, 2014