One of modernism’s great paradoxes has been its inability to solve its own problems. It sounds counter-intuitive but that’s the way it’s working out in real-time. In my youth, I recall reading my father’s Popular Science magazines and learning in fascination of how cars would be emission free, modern communications would end conflict, and how the development of new seeds would spell the end to world famine. I grew up believing my future world would be better than my present. I was wrong, and so was Popular Science.
With so many advances in science, how is it that climate change now has us by the throat? In a world of spreading capitalism, how did it come to be that we have rising unemployment around the world and poverty escalating at troubling rates? How is it that, instead of tying into new energy grids from new technologies, that we are now debating whether to support one oil pipeline that will lead to China or another heading to the southern US? And what happened to ending world hunger?
We feel helpless in all of this. More confounding is the reality that our leaders are just as lost as we are. All this technology, money, resources, talent, and yet we can’t mount a serious challenge to what we are facing.
And so we pull into ourselves. In difficult economic times it is often true that our vision can’t seek past the borders of our own communities. Essentially we are fearful. We fatefully come to believe that we can at least solve our own civic problems while leaving to global challenges to others. Hearing of 18 million people presently facing impending starvation in the Sahel region of Africa troubles us, but, hey, that’s someone else’s problem. While the inherent desire of our citizens is for a more peaceful and cooperative future for all of humanity, it is sadly ironic that it’s other values to which we hold that often place us at odds and in competition with the struggling people in other parts of the world.
Our capacity to imagine novel, more equitable and better futures is a vital evolutionary tool in humans. Our utopian dreams and guiding visions, can play an important catalytic role in helping us to transcend the constraints of our limited existences. By shutting out the problems of the greater world we actually show ourselves to be less human, not more. The moment we concentrate only on our own families or friends, we unknowingly lose a piece of our humanity. When we can care about the homeless or the hungry in our community but turn a deaf ear to the pleas from overseas, we lose a chance at our own greatness.
I was asked by someone in a radio interview from the United States last week what was it that I believed to be the opposite of humanity. Good question. “It’s indifference,” I finally said, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought there was some truth in it, at least in my limited experience. The opposite of humanity isn’t inhumanity, but indifference. The opposite of compassion isn’t emotional hardness, but indifference. The opposite of great faith isn’t unbelief – it’s indifference. The opposite of Canada’s potential for a more equitable future isn’t bad politics – it’s indifference. The opposite of a broader life of consciousness isn’t self-centredness – it’s indifference. The opposite of effective community engagement isn’t loss of faith in democracy – it’s indifference. It’s as Helen Keller used to say, “Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.”
One of the crowning delusions of our age is the modern penchant for balance over justice. People, too smart by half, have taken to discussing the merits of various sides on some of our greatest challenges. As with any other helpful trait, balance can easily lead to inaction. Objectivity can often mask for indifference. Hearing from all sides means nothing if it can’t lead to greater justice for the oppressed. We’ve been living in the Information Age for a couple of decades now and yet our challenges are ever greater. Data, fact, statistics, parity, balance – none of these things have improved our lot, merely informed them. No, what we lack is humanity – the ability to utilize our conscious will to take stands, risk our security for the sake of others, believe that compassion supersedes commerce, and personal integrity trumps public information.
Being human, productively human, means getting outside of ourselves and actually changing the circumstances of others – in our community, country, the world – through the casting of our best instincts against the broader problems of the age, not just our own difficulties. We have become so good at voicing the language, parroting the words of the great compassionate voices of history on Facebook or Twitter, and being content with knowledge instead of action, that we run the risk of committing one, or even all, of the seven deadly sins, Mahatma Gandhi spoke of so forcefully.
Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Science without humanity
Knowledge without character
Politics without principle
Commerce without morality
Worship without sacrifice
Being human is all about ridding our lives of the excuses for inaction. We all fail on these seven issues, but being human means getting bent out of shape about it so that I don’t fail others. The great challenges of the age can no longer be met by knowledge alone, but will.