Weeds: Try to exemplify humanity

I’m writing this on Monday morning. The column I was working on will be tossed on a pile of half-done things. Like everyone else in Minnesota I’m feeling anxious and shook up. If you’re not, maybe you were on a weeklong hike in the Northwoods without a radio or your phone. If so, we’re jealous.

When you layer a police killing and protests morphing into riots on top of the strange world of the pandemic we’ve all been living in, it is a lot to hold in your head. I feel compelled to write, knowing full well and with humility that I do not have much to offer being safely ensconced here on our farm place, far from everything.

But to not write is to pretend that the Earth is not convulsing around me. Writing about the planting season would be like a tree just fell on our house and I write about how great the view is.

If you are my age or older, you have a comparable time to go back to in memory, although there is not much comfort in that. The late Sixties when I was coming of age were all of this and more.

The United States was sending thousands of young men to a distant jungle to fight for something vague compared to what their fathers fought for in World War II. Civil rights were finally being addressed a century after slavery ended, only to be replaced by discrimination in every level of society. A notion of women’s rights began drawing attention. Environmental concerns grew from a small group crying out in the desert to alarm bells going off.

Sometime back then I read this from the British poet W. B. Yeats. It is from the poem “The Second Coming” that Yeats wrote in 1919 in response to the World War that ravaged Europe. It fit in 1969 and perhaps now:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

As a teenager, I found myself taking sides, drawn to the side of equality and fairness as I perceived them. This was colored by Christian faith and what I thought a better and holier world should look like.

I was young on the same farm place where I observe the world from today. I watched the adults around me try to understand the craziness going on in distant places. I remember tension and conversations that turned into yelling matches where people were talking at and around each other and no one was listening.

Fifty years later, and people are talking at and around each other and no one is listening.

I wrote a while ago about the legacy of my generation and what we are leaving our children and grandchildren. I had concerns then about the world we are gifting them. Right now, those concerns have exploded into full blown despair and sadness. That is rare for me. I know there will be a day when protests have ended and the pandemic is a weird memory, and I will rejoice in a beautiful sunset. But not today.

You can pick your own favorite source of angst and gloom. There are plenty to go around. I’m going to choose this: we have all gathered into camps without any positive interaction with the other side. No matter the topic from the most serious to the most harmless, we are one side or the other, absolutely, thoroughly, and completely. You are either “with me or agin’ me.” Red, blue, right, left, friend, enemy.

I’ve always enjoyed a spirited discussion on an issue of the day with someone on the other side. I’ve thought those could be valuable, productive, and even fun. On a personal level, Pam and I have had to talk through a million different things as we’ve steered a home and a marriage. Many of those began with us on opposite sides. I’ve held in my mind the belief that two reasonable people of good will should be able to come to a conclusion, often a compromise, that is best for all.

I’m not sure anymore.

A virus attacked our species, and for a while it looked like we could unite around something that is a threat to every country on Earth. There were even places where fighting stopped between entrenched enemies. “We’re all in this together” seemed to mean we were all in this together.

Until we weren’t. The virus quickly became politicized. Like everything else. Now you are a mask wearer, or proudly not. You are for a cautious opening-up, or “Restore my rights!” The hope that we could deal with this reasonably and effectively while caring about each other’s well-being has faded.

Turns out a pandemic was easy compared to the George Floyd killing and its aftermath. Every fault line that existed in America become a seismic quake in a few days. Here are the same issues of race that had people marching in the streets fifty years ago. Perhaps you are one who thinks racism is overblown and problems in minority communities are ones “they” should deal with. I suppose that is comforting since it asks nothing of you.

I don’t have much to do with social media outside of texting friends. But now and then I see things that people say about other human beings. Sometimes when I do, I want to close my eyes and pretend I didn’t see that. Writers and thinkers for centuries have tried to understand “man’s inhumanity to man.” Now you can go on any comment thread online and find examples of well-honed hate.

While I have been writing this, our president insulted and mocked some people. That’s pretty much a daily occurrence. As you’ve probably discerned, I am not a fan of his and think he has unleashed some awful streams of malevolence from the highest branches of America. But it would be too easy for me to blame him and move on.

Going back to that world we are leaving our children, it will not do any good to mope and feel depressed and overwhelmed like I do today. I’ll wallow in this a while, but then I need to get to work doing something, anything to make this a better place. We all do.

Alan Paton was a white South African writer who from his Christianity found it right to oppose apartheid. Paton had days of despair, but he wrote this: “There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.”


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