What DO We Owe Each Other? A Defense of Empathy in the Age of Trump

“No more turning away from the weak and the weary, no more turning away from the coldness inside;

Just a world that we all must share, it’s not enough just to stand and stare;

Is it only a dream that there’ll be no more turning away?

  • ‘On the Turning Away’ – Pink Floyd

What do we owe each other?

That question– raised recently by The Good Place— is as fascinating a question as I’ve ever encountered, particularly with Donald Trump in the White House, and amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Even in a vacuum– if you can remove all outside influence or context from your contemplation– this question is a tough nut to crack, and smarter folks than myself– like Chidi Anagonye— have debated this topic since the dawn of time. Like all great hypotheticals, there’s no simple answer, and there’s no doubt that– if you ask 100 people– the responses would run the gamut, along with the individual interpretations of the question itself.

For instance, how many folks hear this and ponder: what am I entitled to, and what am I personally owed from the rest of the world? Perspective is an elusive concept to accurately grasp, and there is an underlying selfishness that drives many people in their world interpretation. Sure, you shouldn’t judge a person until you walk a mile in their shoes…but what about my shoes, and my problems, huh; don’t I deserve what I have coming to me, too?

Well, no, you don’t, actually, because like a wise woman once said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” How, exactly, can you determine that one person’s happiness is more important, more pressing, and more valuable than that of another person? What makes one human being deserving of peace, love and prosperity, and a million others undeserving? Who makes that decision? What arbitrary benchmarks or rationales can one trot out that supports their happiness in the face of another?

Conversely, some may be asked what we owe each other and think: what don’t we owe? The golden rule dictates you treat others as you wish to be treated, and if you want kindness and fairness, you need to put the same effort– or more, even– out into the world. What goes around comes around, after all, and karma is always waiting in the wings. Since empathy doesn’t cost a cent, why can’t we all be sympathetic towards those who are less fortunate than us? Why is the idea of fair treatment and genuine equality so abhorrent to some people? When did it become a personal insult to admit you may be better off, or possess many privileges that most of the human race does not?

Life isn’t a zero-sum game– where only one can win and the rest are unequivocal losers– and it doesn’t have to be. There aren’t many black or white scenarios in which we exist on Earth, and the solution to most of life’s problems– the ones that can even be solved– lies somewhere on that gray spectrum. The question of what we owe each other doesn’t come down to nothing versus everything, and to say I owe the rest of humanity every…single…thing I have to give is preposterous.

“Only a fool thinks he can solve all of the world’s problems,” goes the lesson of a parable– told in season one of Fargo— about the rich man who gave it all, up to and including his life. It’s a fantasy, an unattainable goal for anyone, so there’s no sense in running yourself ragged worrying about what can’t be done.

“Yeah…but you gotta try, don’t ya?”

***

What do we owe each other when the world is in the midst of the worst crisis anyone alive has ever encountered? The literal human toll of COVID-19– about to cross that grisly milestone of 100,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, in less than three months, with no end in sight– would (or, rather, should) be devastating enough to shake anyone to their core. 

But when combined with the staggering economic and psychological toll that has swiftly been incurred, the continuing fallout is categorically catastrophic– with over 38,000,000 filing for unemployment since March, and over 100,000 small businesses permanently shuttered. This pandemic has ruined millions of lives, and continues to rage throughout our borders. 

And what can we honestly say we’re doing about it? What are we doing– right now, at this moment– to ensure no more lives are senselessly lost, and no more dreams are hopelessly, irreversibly shattered? How are we uniting as a nation, coalescing behind this easily defined but  difficult to defeat enemy, and demonstrating the unrivaled American mettle– or temerity, if you prefer– for the rest of the world to follow? What have we done to illustrate our strength as the United States of America, and push back against the notion that we’re merely a collection of red states and blue states?

Well, other than a few weeks in late March and early April, it feels like we’ve done little more than flail about, pointing fingers and flinging accusations as the country craters deeper and deeper into its second economic collapse within 15 years. This, unfortunately, isn’t entirely shocking in our age of hyperpartisanship, but how have we gotten to a point where we can’t agree on basic facts as mortalities and debts continue to pile up? Why are we in a position where human beings are dying daily– from something we’ve barely been able to slow, let alone stop– yet so many allege this to be a conspiracy of some sort, refuse to abide by the only things that have shown to slightly mitigate its spread, and race to declare ‘mission accomplished’ as the world burns around them?

Everything starts up top, and the President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, is supposed to be the unquestioned leader of this nation, setting the example for all of America to follow. The president should unify the country in times of crisis, and stoically assume the full brunt of the role they yearned to occupy, without complaint. Harry Truman, after all, famously placed a sign in the Oval Office that read, ‘The Buck Stops Here,’ and for the majority of men who occupied that position, this has held true. With great power comes great responsibility, and once you aggressively seek the informal title of ‘Leader of the Free World,’ you reap what you sow in terms of public backlash.

What kind of leader has Donald Trump been since this virus was discovered– a virus that didn’t exist before 2019, placing the blame for any obstacles we’ve faced in our eradication efforts solely on his administration’s shoulders? Has he accepted the grave responsibility his office requires, and been a beacon of hope and admiration during these horrific times? Does he– as a fierce defender of the pro-life movement– demonstrate a solemnity for the nearly 100,000 dead, the thousands more that are certain to die still, or the millions of loved ones left behind? 

The facts are there, on the public record, having played out before our eyes. He has actively slashed funding for scientific and medical research since he took office, while publicly deprioritizing the necessity of pandemic planning and preparedness. His administration arrogantly refused to heed any early warnings, or the advice on pandemic preparation left by the previous administration— actually blaming this oversight on being too busy to address all the requirements of a job he desperately wanted– while mostly deflecting blame onto a person who hasn’t been in office for 3 years and 4 months.

And he has stubbornly– if not stunningly– refused to accept any responsibility for the choices he makes, the words he speaks, or for anything that has happened to this country during the past, present or future of the COVID-19 pandemic. What lessons are we to learn from a man who apathetically ignores the astounding loss of human lives, embraces an ‘us vs. them’ mentality in order to sow discord amongst the citizens, and emphatically rejects the accountability required– and accepted upon pursuing the position– of the President of the United States?

Let’s say, hypothetically, I choose not to wear sunscreen, knowing full well my Casper-like skin is predisposed– genetically and aesthetically– to melanoma. If I develop skin cancer, am I responsible for this outcome? Or can I foist the blame onto a third party because my emotional state is too fragile, or because I am too proud, to accept my actions have consequences? In that vein, if I tell others not to wear sunscreen, and someone I actively stop from protecting their skin is diagnosed with cancer, am I to blame for that outcome? Perhaps not, if I’m an ordinary nobody, because no one is apt to take my word too seriously. But if I had any influential power, and people prescribed real weight to the words I spoke– as with the President of the United States– then wouldn’t I be just as guilty as the person who heeded my advice?

Look, when you make your bed– especially if you’ve chosen to live your life under the microscopic public eye– you have to be ready to sleep in it. We’re accountable for our actions as creatures in possession of free will, thus fully culpable for the things we say or do, and the consequences they may render. Willful ignorance is a choice one makes, as life often boils down to a series of tough decisions; and since we aren’t blessed with omnipotent abilities, every person will, naturally, prioritize things differently. 

The Trump administration made a calculated decision to reduce their focus on pandemic preparation over the past three years, and if COVID-19 never came to be, it might not have mattered at all. But things are what they are, and no amount of bellyaching or wishful thinking– like believing this virus will simply vanish in the face of all available evidence– can change our reality.

I promise, I am not here to blame Donald Trump for the sheer existence of this newest strain of coronavirus. But come on now: he is the President, for goodness sake! He, more than any other U.S. citizen, is fully responsible for his words and actions (or lack thereof). It is irrefutable that a huge number of crucial decisions he made– and continues to make, as we are still very much in the woods with this virus– have left us vulnerable to the worst case scenario. The president’s words and actions don’t only echo into eternity; they have rattled our national foundation in the here and now, when we need stability the most.

It is incontrovertible that nobody is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. Why would the president be any different? We all universally accept that, in order to spur personal growth and evolution– ensuring we don’t repeat our missteps in the future– we must be willing to own up to our past mistakes and failures. Confronting the darker side of our history– as an individual or as a nation– is an immensely harrowing task, but it’s required of anyone hoping to improve on who they were yesterday.

Why wouldn’t we expect the President of the United States– the person charged with leading the nation during good times and bad, who, once again, desperately wanted the job knowing everything it entails– to act the same as you, or me, or any other human being blessed with the precious gift of life?

***

As I wonder what we owe each other– as Americans, during the COVID-19 pandemic– it’s disheartening to consider how many people would likely take their cues from the president and say: nothing. I suppose I kind of get it, as we aren’t necessarily required to help anyone else during our short time in this world. Life is hard work, and, perhaps, we shouldn’t feel obligated to put forth any tangible efforts to improve the world at large, either now or for the future.

But is it not our duty, still, to ensure each individual’s pursuit of happiness isn’t actively undermined, hurt, threatened, or oppressed by any other individual’s own pursuit, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religious belief, or any other demarcating quality one chooses when tribalizing the world? What do we owe each other if not a mutual respect and a promise not to actively impede anyone’s trek through life?

Our cultural differences truly are only skin deep– fully fabricated social constructions– and there is no such thing as a divine right of kings. Sure, I’m proud to be an American, but why exactly? Just being born in the United States– essentially winning a genetic birthing lottery, because we have zero control of where, how, in what, or to whom we’re born– doesn’t make me a better person, or a more worthy human being, than any other member of the human race. Being an American is a gift from the gods, nothing more than a lucky roll of the cosmic dice; admitting that, and acknowledging that we are born with unquantifiable privileges as American citizens, doesn’t diminish one’s personal stature, or make them ungrateful.

When did we become so selfish and entitled as a nation, and how did humility become such an appalling characteristic? This idea that you or I or any other U.S. citizen is superior to anyone else in the world– simply because the particular flag waving outside my window is adorned with stars and stripes– is completely asinine. Frankly, are we to be judged by the content of our character, as Dr. King dreamed, or by the location listed on our birth certificate? I repeat: there is NO divine right of kings, in this country or anywhere else in the world, and if we want to spout off about American superiority, we can’t simply rest on our laurels.

We can be better than this, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be. What we owe each other is a genuine effort by each individual person to practice what they preach, and to answer honestly– and act accordingly, to their word– when asked what’s more important: people or pennies? I wouldn’t expect many folks to admit they value dollars more than human lives, at least not out loud, because the premise itself is so nauseating. You can replenish a bank account; you can’t restore life, as death is the only permanent guarantee.

The past few months have only strengthened my belief that we– as human beings and American citizens– have miles to go before we can even begin to approach greatness. But we can make strides, and make real progress, by controlling the one thing we can control: ourselves. The right to life doesn’t end at birth, and it belongs to every human being who graces God’s green Earth. We should be making monumental efforts to ensure every human being– all members of the human race– are given their fair access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because the self evident truth is that all men (and women) are created equally.

No one person’s freedom, or civil liberties, is any more important than any other, and if you choose to live in a civilized society– and reap the benefits of social structure and organization– you accept that premise at face value. You don’t want anyone imposing their belief system onto you and your life, so by the same token, you can’t impinge on anyone else’s efforts to live freely and healthily. Nobody likes a bully– one would hope– so simply disliking something, or feeling inconvenienced, is no reason to deny the freedom you demand from another person.

It doesn’t cost anyone an ounce of freedom by wearing a face mask in public. It is not an imposition to your civil liberties to adhere to social distancing recommendations, and it does not make you a rebel on par with the Founding Fathers by refusing to respect or follow the guidelines set forth to mitigate the damage done by this virus. The risk of COVID-19 is very real– if not for you personally, then for millions of your fellow Americans and humans– and dismissing the severity of this virus by comparing the risk involved to, say, the risk inherent in driving, is a patently false equivalency. 

Because is anyone arguing against the traffic laws we have in place to ensure our safety? Do people refuse to drive on the right side of the road, or to obey traffic lights or speed limits, claiming those driving guidelines ‘restrict their freedoms as an American?’ Are we decrying ‘government overreach’ because we need a license– issued by the government– to operate a motor vehicle legally? The comparison falls flat upon examination, because, unlike driving, we can’t agree on any cohesive, unified approaches to abolish this virus for good.

Plus, you know, people choose to drive; no one asked for this virus to appear six months ago, out of nowhere, with no course of treatment and no game plan for how to stop it.

During and after this pandemic, we owe each other an inclination towards compromise, an effort towards selfless civility, and a recognition that you can’t always get exactly what you want in life. Contentment is not mutually exclusive to you, me, or them, and since we don’t live in a zero-sum world, there’s no reason to behave otherwise. Understanding that you are no more important than any other human– and acting accordingly as you accept that reality– is crucial to our growth as a species.

But above all else, as we skyrocket past 100,000 dead from COVID-19 in just the United States of America, what we owe each other is empathy. We need to be willing to feel compassion for those lives lost– like my uncle— and need to be willing to acknowledge the incomparable toll this virus continues to take. We owe each other a rejection of apathy– a refusal to ignore the problems of others if they don’t affect me personally– and an acceptance that a poor man is not poor solely because of his own shortcomings. No one asked for this virus to exist, but it’s here; don’t we owe it to our fellow humans to do everything we can to eliminate the threat, rather than complain about the inconvenience it has caused to your expected comfort?

Maybe this point of view makes me a bleeding heart, but I’m glad. I wholeheartedly embrace the label, and reject the premise of any insinuated insult accordingly. Would I prefer to be cold, callous, and dismissive of my fellow human beings suffering? Absolutely not. Why would anyone?

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