Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Every Man is Guilty of All the Good He Didn't Do

Have you ever passed a car on the interstate, four-way flashers blinking, hood open obviously in some kind of distress and said to yourself, 'that doesn't look good-hope they get help.' Maybe lost in the aisles of Mega Mart, you've come across a small child struggling desperately to recognize a mother or father's knees in the forest of trousered Amazons surrounding her or him and you've wondered if 'some one's gonna take that kid to the help desk?' How about this one at such a routine level it doesn't register: on the way into the office from the parking lot, you walk past the Taco Bell wrapper or nearly-empty Big Gulp soda cup. When there was food or a soft drink in the containers they weighed more than they do nearly empty and yet, it's at their new and lighter weight that they are now too heavy for someone to carry to the trash can. All you can do is shake your head as you walk by the detritus on your way into the building.

We, you and me, love to believe that 'government should handle it', whatever 'it' might be and however we define government. Perhaps there should be a national Department of Being Nicer to One Another (don't worry, I'm not looking for a new job) or a Bureau of Not Wasting So Much Time and Money on Stupid Stuff. These may be good ideas-on the moon.

Here on Earth, we have most of whatever assistance we need at the ends of our two arms-yeah, our own two hands. And, because of my highly selective reading of the founding documents of this Republic, I'm pretty sure I have immediate access to whatever else I might need, beyond my own physicality or family. I've always understood the purpose of government, at whatever level you'd like to have the discussion, to be about doing for us as a collective what we cannot do for ourselves individually. I've seen some folks suggest the only proper function of a federal government should be national defense/securing of our boundaries and borders. In the world of the 21st Century, I'm not sure our international interdependence hasn't changed how the latter portion of that might get done. But that might be a topic for another time.

All of us have so many facets of governance in our daily lives that we may have lost sight of who we are. I've heard stories for years, and it may be an urban legend (like 'we used to have a balanced budget') about an experiment that involved placing lab mice in glass containers and then slowly filling the containers with water. The mice, as would you or I, struggled to swim, to stay alive at any cost, as the water rose higher. At just the moment that the mouse, exhausted from the swimming, gives up and sinks to the bottom, thus drowning, the white-coated lab assistant would swoop in and pick the mouse out of the water and save it. Yeah, I can imagine how thrilled PETA was/is. Not the point and not close to the point.

This experiment would be conducted dozens of times in a week, for weeks on end, with the same result: no mouse was ever permitted to drown. But, and here's the interesting (to me) part: what the researchers learned, says the story, was that every rescue of a drowning mouse happened earlier and sooner than the time before. The mice, it seems, figured out (correctly) the sooner they stopped trying to save themselves, the faster someone would reach out and bring them to safety. Therefore, why try? The hand of Man became the Hand of God.

Our skills and abilities, time and talents, devoted for thousands of years to hunting and gathering and warring and colonizing and jousting and lute-playing and all the behaviors we have exhibited since becoming our own species, have atrophied and do so more everyday as we allow ourselves to become comfortable as components in the machine. I don't have to pick up that discarded coffee cup I passed last night on the sidewalk as I left a City Council meeting--Norwich has a Public Works Department to clean the streets. You don't need to make sure that lost child gets to the courtesy desk-one of the clerks in the shop can do that. and why else do we have Triple A or state troopers, if not to help a disabled motorist?

Of course, if we all thought that way we'd have nobody making breakfast this morning for those starting to get up from a night in the shelter. We'd have no one to run to help battle a blaze when the house on the corner caught on fire and the kids that are treated as spare parts by the parents who never wanted them are just fine as long as they stay out of sight. Just lock your car doors when you drive through the dodgy part of town-wouldn't want any of that to get into the car would you? And cheer up, what we don't have a government program to handle, we probably have a law to prohibit.

Whenever you feel proud of that we have done in this world-think of all that we could have done. Each of us is but one, but we are one and we need to prove Voltaire wrong.
-bill kenny

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