Are we?

Photo by Stephen L. Syverud

Whenever I hear someone assert, “We are better than this,” I wonder.

As much as I want to believe that people are basically good at heart, I’ve seen too many act out of self-interest, rather than a common good, succumb to the reassurance of herd mentality, rather than strike out against it, follow unethical orders, rather than defy them. There are always exceptions, but often, not enough. It feels as though people will defend their behavior, no matter how inconsiderate, corrupt, or simply petty, if they feel it’s in their best interests to do so.

It’s easy to blame one person for causing the assorted manifestations of ugliness that emerge from self interest, but to do so ignores what has been both our greatest strength and fatal flaw since humans walked upright, perhaps even before: the instinct for self-preservation. This instinct can drive people to excel, create masterpieces, eradicate diseases; but it can also drive them to oppress, amass power at others’ expense, take pleasure in, or blame people for their pain and misfortune. The ugly side of self-preservation, indeed, survival, existed long before the current administration, and will continue long after it is gone….

***

So, are we better than our primitive survival instincts?

The current expressions of ugliness on both sides of the ideological spectrum would lead me to believe we’re not.

And yet, there are the thousands of people who put themselves in harms way every day to provide necessary services to those at risk, or work under the most physically grueling and emotionally wrenching conditions to care for those who are ill, or dying….

And there are the simplest expressions of selflessness that say, “I care….”

***

When my mother-in-law died, the distribution of many of her treasures fell to my sister-in-law and me. One by one, we went through them, with my sister-in-law choosing which pieces she wanted, and the two of us offering the rest to our children. Because I wanted the process to be as amicable and stress-free as possible, I refrained from asking for anything. After almost an hour had passed, and we’d gone through a substantial number of possessions, I held up a plate that was one of my mother-in-law’s favorites, and asked my sister-in-law if she wanted it. She took the plate in her hands and eyed it lovingly, remembering, I’m certain, as I did, all the homemade cookies and sweets that were served on it, then looked at me, a bit wistfully, and said, “Don’t you want anything?”

I said, “She was your mother, their grandmother. Her things should go to you and them.”

She sighed, and set the plate in front of me. “You take it. I want you to have it.”

***

So, are we better?

On most days, I’m doubtful. And then I think of all those selfless souls who shop for, and tend to, and care for us, with not nearly enough recognition and appreciation for their heroism, or enough patience to do what’s needed to make their jobs, their lives easier. And I think of that day so many years ago, in view of another loss, and the gift that was given so generously, with so much love, and I think, maybe, maybe, we can be….

***

Rest in peace, sweet sister. Rest in peace.

Photo by B. Froman

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