Morality is often regarded as a creation of reason, an affair of concepts and principles; but it may be that the imagination is a more necessary foundation for morality than reason, because the injustices that we are asked to relieve and to abolish are most often injustices that we ourselves have not known. The narrowness of experience is one of the primary impediments to compassion. We will never give help if we cannot picture need.
From The Syrian refugees and us, by Leon Wieseltier
We are like islands in the sea, separated on the surface but connected in the deep, said 19th century philosopher, William James.
One could also say the sea that separates us is sometimes angry, hurling tsunamis of the overwhelming grief and heartache of war, terrorism, poverty, disease and madness, against our isolated shores. But it is not the world that generates those metaphorical waves, it is we humans who inhabit it, and we also have the power to calm the sea.
This natural world – that is, the world without us – can at best be described as simply existing. Without the moral codes we impose upon it, it simply is. Animals eat each other, rivers breach banks, earthquakes and volcanoes terraform, lightening sparks fires that consume plains and forests, plants seed and blossom, insects whir , whales breach, glaciers calve and so forth.
It is only when we come up against the world that it becomes overwhelming, that rivers breaching banks and earthquakes and fires become disasters, and flowers and whales become beautiful and glaciers calving become spectacular – or overwhelming.
The recent alligator attack at Disney World that claimed the life of a two year old, something that as a parent I can’t even begin to put my mind around to understand so unspeakable a loss – as overwhelming as the whole thing is, was created by an alligator simply being an alligator.
Had the attack occurred while kayaking or swimming in a lake or pond anywhere else but Disney World, the incident would have been tragic. Because it happened in a totally unexpected environment, it was tragic and overwhelming. But both places are the same – the World; not Disney World, but the world in which we all live, with its unsettling keep-you-guard-up environment, no matter the pastel colors with which we paint it.
Yet, however tragic, I can still make sense of an alligator acting on instinct. It did what alligators do, and the question is not of the moral rectitude of the alligator but, if anything, perhaps of the vigilance of Disney to ensure the façade of safety is as inviolable as possible.
The Orlando night club tragedy that left 50 people dead and another 50 injured, is something else. That is a tragic and horrifying tale of human madness, in turn inspiring stunning outpourings of human kindness and compassion.
There will be endless discussion and reflective retrospective decision making. Should people have flagged the shooter better, or responded more definitively when others alerted them to concerns? That’s the type of speculative soothsaying that will continue in perpetuity, the oily subject matter that greases the wheels of idle talk shows where people speak loudly but go nowhere.
However, it is that outpouring of kindness and compassion that most interest me. One Orlando Trust Fund raised $7.5 million in three days for victims. 7500 blood donors gave blood in one day alone, prompting one blood bank to report they actually had sufficiently safe levels of blood inventory now.
So the question is, what if we did that all the time? Why do we need a tragedy to be proactive in caring for each other? If we can raise $7.5 million in 3 days, what could we do if we always gave at that level?
It’s hard, of course, because we’re human, the very challenge that causes us self-inflicted pain; because the day to day of caring for ourselves and our immediate families is work enough for many of us. The sloshing waves of life often obscure our view of one another. The real miracle, perhaps, is that so many people can turn outward so quickly, and so effectively. We do what we can when we have to, in our shared collective horror at tragedy, because most people, even adrift in the sea of life, are good and decent.
Leon Wieseltier points out that perhaps “what we need more than reason, is imagination, And this obligating imagination—of the pains of others, of the needs of others—will not happen unless in the others we see the same—unless we regard our general humanity as more ethically significant than our specific constructions of it. Before we are Muslims and Christians and Jews, we are brothers and sisters. If we allow our identification with each other to be obscured by our identities, then we are lost. “
That’s why we can act so effectively when we see tragedy unfold before us. We don’t need to imagine it; it is made manifest and we can better feel the pain of others that compels us to action.
The real challenge is to remember, after the talking heads move on to the next thing, to care without being told to care, without having to be so shockingly reminded of why need to care. How do we bridge that gap between acting when tragedy strikes, and caring before it does, maybe better averting tragedy altogether? How do we activate that “obligating imagination” that helps us see ourselves in others?
For myself at least, the best way to do that, the best way to make sense of a big overwhelming world where even to imagine suffering at that scale may inspire only hopelessness – is to scale it down; down from the global, down from the national, and the state, to the local – to my community, and my neighbors, where I can be a kind and caring person on a daily basis because I can see them, and in them, see myself.
That requires looking up, looking into each others eyes daily (see Liberators International video above) , wherever we are: at the grocery store, or at work, at school, or on the street – and seeing our shared humanity every day, to find and focus on that deep connection that binds us, and never let it go.