When I was a teenager and thinking about my future my father would tell me, “what is important in life is making a contribution to society.”
He never defined exactly what he meant but he didn’t have to. His tone called up all those he believed were not making such a contribution: the selfish and the control-hungry, and especially those insensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised around them. He knew, growing up as he did in Nazi Germany and later as a refugee traveling from country to country, what those people looked like for real. On the road, the farmer who gave you work for a few days might well understand that you had no other place to go, and that might lead to either compassion and welcome and rest, or to being used and taken advantage of; for example, being given very hard work to “pay” for an inadequate meal and an infested mattress — by someone who understood precisely how hard a starving refugee could be pushed. He’d been through that and it had shaped him.
As a child, I recall my father reading his evening paper in his comfortable easy chair, shaking his head about an unfairness of some kind in the news. Someone with less power was getting hurt by someone with more. He voiced his frustration as a champion for the working stiff and the underdog, and for anyone discriminated against because of ethnicity. He’d not forgotten what the world could be and do to people. He had never been a victim, but he’d also learned early on how to quash his anger in public in order to not stand out for anything, praise or punishment. He wasn’t a victim; he was a survivor, and it had paid off.
I did not inherit all of these patterns, but the notion of that contribution to society certainly stuck in my bones. How could you have a meaningful life without it? And what would be that contribution? I cannot remember all of what I thought as a young man getting this advice, but writing was certainly there for me and the idea of society itself, creating a better society, one with more equity, one with more understanding. And so there you have it, these feelings worked behind the scenes, shaping my own choice of a career in support of effective, humane workplaces and the value of people.
I suspect that many who might read this also have some of the same sort of thing in their blood. And looking at the current political polarization and economic polarization of American society wonder what we can do. What kind of contribution can we make every day that somehow moves us toward solutions that reduce the dangers of polarization, which are fragmentation through enmity, contempt, isolation and superiority? Polarization, it seems to me, is always a win/lose proposition with ever higher stakes, where that “winning,” whatever side you are on, is eventually also a loss for the whole, a cause of suffering and, potentially, of war.
My father’s answer to the question, after achieving citizenship and serving in the American military during WWII (he chose to fight in the Philippines), was to stay out of the storm, keep his head down, go to work, do his job as a carpenter for the Boeing Company everyday for thirty years plus, and support his family — do what he conceived to be his duty.
But can any of us today afford such a luxury?
Probably not. The fragmentation is coming very close now. The fabric is thin, in places torn. What can we do to mend it? What will you do? What will be your “contribution”? Because society, a word originally from the Latin for “companion,” is always in our hands, and there is evident work to do. The fundamental question, given that Latin definition, is who will we choose as our companions and how will we, you and I, contribute to that companionship? On this small planet of swirling light and dark, will we try to congregate only with people just like us, rich or poor, left or right? Will we only read the news and watch the channels we want to hear? Will we brick up the walls of our ideologies? Or will we, in the face of our own human selfishness and hunger for control, our own insensitivity, make a subtle but powerful choice to stretch the field?
It seems to me that the first change is always one of consciousness. To grow weary of the polarization. To find it unacceptable — and say so. And then to start looking for solutions, not just compromises (although they may help in the short term), even if it means discarding our own dearest ideologies as part of the problem and in order to get at something more fundamental, undiscovered and true. The biggest contribution is always to go farther down, farther in to the human spirit and our greatest capabilities. To see the times as a teacher and a challenge, not a failure, and let go of all the rigid labels that keep things exactly where they are. Something new and better is on the horizon, if only we can let go of what we cling to so tightly.
The alternative, it seems to me, is really to go backwards, perhaps ultimately to a world of “farmers” and “refugees,” and, my friends, my companions, let me ask you, who on God’s green earth would ever want that?