What we are lacking, in a strict sense, is not consciousness. We know what the problems are; we know what would solve them; even in a narrowly technical sense, the solutions are ready to hand. But we have not had the sense or the will to implement them. The world has been more than happy to go on with business as usual, much as it always has — offering lip service to its ideals while traducing them in practice. If there is any truth to the 2012 prophecies, all this will have to change. We will either adopt, or be forced to adopt, some entirely new ways of behaving that are not so new. After all if everyone simply decided to live by the ethical ideals that we all know to be right, many and indeed most of the world’s problems would vanish as if by magic. (Richard Smoley)
I came across this passage from a book of essays titled Supernatural: Writings On An Unknown History. I highlighted it and tried to forget about it, but it has haunted my thoughts ever since.
It’s not that it’s anything new to me. I have seen so many people abandon their ideals and their morals at their work desk, citing their mortgage, their children, their student loans to justify turning their backs on what they know is right. A lot of times, the betrayal to one’s values comes in small ways: turning the other way, choosing not to say anything or to let someone else take the fall. I’ve always known that each of these seemingly small decisions contributes to the larger and fatally threatening problem, which compasses everything from wars to social injustices to famine and eco disasters and everything in between.
I remembered reading in college in an ethics class about one American business’ decision to sell children’s clothes that were found to be highly flammable to a third world market where the company knew that the likelihood of lawsuits was smaller and less of a threat to the bottom line. I remembered thinking how many people must have contributed to that decision: from the executives in the boardroom, to the secretaries who (in those days) typed up the memos for the international sales employees who got it and who went ahead and sold the products, invoiced them and shipped them overseas without thinking of themselves as accessories to murder, because, after all, it wasn’t they who made the choice, nor they who had the power to stop it — even though all it would have taken is a refusal to do it. Certainly there might have played in that decision to go along with the sale thoughts about a mortgage, a kid in school whose tuition kept increasing every year, maybe even a physically or mentally challenged relative whose medical care needed unending resources. Or maybe the decision finally came to go along with it simply because one felt replaceable. The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck goes into much eloquent detail about how workers can often be helpless in the face of decisions like these.
But even in small ways, in every way, we decide the outcome for others. If I let a student pass my course on the basis of extra credit and her talk with my Dean, I’ve failed that student if I pass her, and I’ve also failed everyone else. The reason why college degrees are so devalued, why the work of so many students who work hard ends up earning them nothing more than huge student loan debts is in large part because of so many minor decisions of teachers and administrators to overlook, or pass over, or to pretend it was working when everyone in the proverbial room knew better. When students cheat on their SAT they drive the national average up, which makes it harder for really deserving students to earn the scores that will get them scholarships and good colleges to accept them. And yet students choose to cheat. Teachers choose to pass undeserving students because it’s easier that way. Administrators overrule the decisions of teachers and hand out passing grades without even checking with the teachers first because it makes the parents happy and gets the students off their back. There’s your degree that’s not worth anything: it’s because for some, it’s so easy to get it.
If you work for a company or organization that you know contributes to the discomfort, abuse, or neglect of a segment of the population, would you quit? Even if you’re only the receptionist, or the guy who pushes a broom around the hallways, fact of the matter is: there would be no company if everyone decided, today, no, that’s enough, that is beyond what I’m willing to do to justify my wage.
So today I was thinking of what hell would really look like: a place where you sit on a pile of money that you can only spend on plastic things that you don’t need; a place where the food is poisoned and the water tastes bad; a place where you breathe air clogged with chemicals; a place where no one understands anyone because there is no education, and facts are decided by the latest public opinion; a place where you never know anyone, but everyone knows everything there is to know about you; a place where everyone is always sick, though everyone looks plenty good, complete with fake plastic teeth and plastic breasts, but with lung cancer or skin cancer or breast cancer and no one around you knows how to cure you because no one around you knows much of anything at all. In short, what hell would look like is what we create with our decisions every day. What hell would look like is what earth is, or is going to be, real soon. I don’t believe in hell, did I tell you that? I don’t believe in Heaven, either.
Most of all, I don’t believe in a Savior. Why? Because every one of us is born with the ability to save ourselves and the world. Every one of us. We don’t need one guy to come and be humiliated and stripped and made an example of: it’s happened more than once already. It’s happening every day. The guy you call the Savior I call the child in Afghanistan; I call the homosexual who gets tied to a fencepost and beaten to near death; I call the woman whose nose is cut off because she refused to marry her rapist. The people who every day die of hunger and injustices should be shock enough, realization enough of our “sins” — even the choice to pay taxes implicates us when we as a nation is willing to spend trillions, not just in wars, but also in oil wells, in pipelines, in SUV’s and Tyvek housing, and cell phones and laptops like the one I’m using now. All these things, these graces seem all so necessary to our survival, because if I didn’t use a laptop, how would I keep my job? How would I pay my mortgage? How would I take care of healthcare for my husband? Do we ever think about the real price that we pay for our comforts? I do. I wish that I knew less about WordPress and more about growing food. In the real Darwinian Universe, I would not last a day. I know, I know. I don’t quit my job. i don’t throw my laptop out the window. I don’t turn off the lights when I should. I only send money to charity when I have plenty, but I ALWAYS have plenty: i have plenty of food in my refrigerator, plenty of heat and cooling when I need it, plenty of clothing, and plenty of fear of losing it all.
It’s hard being who we think we should be.
This is what heaven looks like: no one is rich; nothing is easy; everyone must work; everyone must help out everyone else; there’s good food and clean water and air, and people know each other and care. And no one is waiting for a Savior because everyone knows, everyone’s got to pitch in.