There is no civilization in the land of the lone wolf. That’s why people are wired to help one another. Reliability, relationships, providing value, watching each other's backs. That’s what community is.
For most of human history, your whole world was within walking distance of where you slept. You and your community were, in essence, the center of this tiny universe; the one where your whole sense of meaning and belonging would play out.
Whatever barbarity or tragedy that happened in far off lands to unknown people stayed locked beyond the horizon.
Not to mention the world was incredibly empty for a really long time.
Then the powder keg of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution increased not only the amount of people, but the knowledge that all those people existed. Communities turned into cities, countries and empires. The world “became” round, connected and navigable. Suddenly, what happened over here impacted what happened over there. Wars were fought in the name of control and comfort. Stories and images of far off cultures trickled in; both the wonders and the misery.
And it’s the misery that we have a hard time processing.
7.7 billion people + the Internet. We are now an enmeshed global “community.” The peephole into pain and suffering is easy to affix; just open any news site and you are blinded by it. Melting. Famine. Fires. Storms. Shootings. Radicalism. Voting rights. Reproductive rights. Corruption. Borders. Walls. Palestine. Kashmir. Syria. Yemen. Myanmar. The Congo. King’s Landing.
News agencies are basically a command center of hurt. “Wherever discomfort is in the world, we’ll find it and tell you about it!”
Refreshing the world’s adversity with every click of the mouse is a lot for our brains to deal with. We’re numb to it because we didn’t evolve to handle the idea that everybody hurts (Thanks R.E.M...Although it’s only the "haves" who hurt sometimes. Most of the world hurts most of the time). If all I did was think about the actual plight of say, the refugees all over the world, I wouldn’t get out of bed. It would be debilitating. Worse, if I cared about one side of a conflict and not the other, I can exacerbate the issue. (The dark side of empathy)
And so every day we balance the ability to dive into the personal realities of the world's marginalized and then in the blink of an eye, we can close that all off and chase our passions, read a book, go out to eat, play a game, take a nap, or any of a zillion things that encompasses “things you can do in your own community when you’re not struggling to live.”
In theory I know what’s going on in Syria (or any other global black eye, including right under our noses) is bad, but in actuality I don’t know what to do about it, or what that “bad” has to do with me. I don’t have to care about Syria in order to continue the general narrative of my life here in America.
I can see the world and yet not notice it because I have the bubble wrap of convenience around me like fine china in transit. I can cherry pick my care for how it fits into my social calendar.
That sits like a sharp pebble in my sock.
The Currency Of Caring
If I care about everyone else, I can’t live for myself.
But if I don’t care about anyone else, I can't live with myself.
So, we have to care about some people, but which ones, and how much?
If you're into entrepreneurial metaphors, is there an MVE (minimal viable expenditure) to caring?
If you’re into baseball, is there a "Mendoza Line" of caring?
If you’re into porridge, is there a Goldilocks zone of caring?
Or if you’re into church history, is there an empathetic tithing to caring?
Before I can face this conundrum, I first have to define what the hell “caring” even is.
What is its currency?
Is “caring” a personal showing of emotion? Things like:
Is it whatever keeps me respected by my tribe (aka virtue signaling)? Things like:
Tweeting “thoughts and prayers”
Saying, “Did you guys hear about Christchurch? Sri Lanka? It’s so sad,” or “OMG, the Notre Dame is my favorite place on earth. My life won’t be the same!”
Is it about the giving of resources? Things like:
Is it about voting?
Or is it a combination of these?
Someone can be both virtue signaling and giving their resources, like the guy who doesn’t really care about the homeless in Kabul, but who wants the Instagram photo of him packing potatoes for a homeless shelter in Kabul?
And what about climate change, the 21st century’s “White Walker” issue? (For those non Game Of Thrones fans - it's the issue that doesn’t care about people, cultures or borders.)
Let’s say there’s a woman who doesn’t think about the health of the planet, but she votes progressive, happens to be a vegetarian, bikes to work and somehow has a lower carbon footprint than the activist banging the drum of climate change?
Who “cares” more about the planet in this instance?
Like debits and credits, should our caring for the planet (or anything) be added up across many line items to see if we’re in the red or the black? (i.e., carbon footprint, boxes recycled, plastic bags not used, renewable energy used, meat not eaten, water saved, candidates elected, environmentally conscious companies invested in)
Or do we each get to decide what “caring” means to us?
I can hear your comments now: “It’s whatever’s in your heart, Bassam.” “It’s complicated, Bassam.” “Every bit helps. It’s all connected, Bassam.” “Stop trying to make me feel bad, Bassam.” “You’re a selfish punk, Bassam.”
All fair points.
Obviously, we’re not cyborgs (yet). Virtue signaling is a part of caring—hopefully a healthy part—but if our caring is only expressed in ways that keep us liking ourselves or keep our friends liking us, then we’re just pumping air into a flat tire.
If the expressing of care is some sort of plea for change, shouldn’t the moving of the needle be the thing we are tracking? Or another way, is your caring measurably or visibly helpful to the thing you say you care so much about?
“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” - Paul Coelho
Compassion's best use as a word is when someone shows it. However, we rationalize our non-commitment or non-sacrifice to a cause by telling people that we have compassion, but for some reason or another we can’t be asked to show it or spend it.
I want to create a new word here that stresses the “show” part of compassion, just like I once did with inspir-action, and I’m calling it (surprise): compactssion. Compassion + action.
Compactssion (n & v) - Physical, emotional, intellectual, financial and/or professional effort towards the change you feel is so needed in the world.
I like this line from Paul Jarvis: “I attempt to follow this simple rule: I don’t get to be publicly outraged about anything unless I’m taking action against it with more than words.”
Claudia Rankine, in her beautiful and award-winning book, Citizen, has a line: “Grief comes out of relationships to subjects over time, and not to any subject in theory.”
Obviously, it’s impossible and unnatural to spend time with everyone in the world, so what relationships are we most responsible to outside of our immediate families & commitments? The sick? The poor? People with the same zip code? The same passport? The same passion? Those who look like us or think like us? Those who don’t? Those who aren’t us? (i.e animals)
I don’t know. I sometimes wonder if all this technological and human progress has turned our species into one giant accidental Thanos who can’t help but destroy half of ourselves simply because we have no way to curb our appetite for “more" and our fear of "them."
But we have to fu*king try. Silo-ing and tightening our blinders certainly isn’t going to be a long-term solution.
I’m not arguing for what the right thing to care about is (because clearly even morally dubious people care about their causes), nor can I discredit the “high” that we get by virtue signaling or by throwing a bag of recyclables in the dumpster.
What we (see: I) should do is truly ask ourselves who or what we care about, how we’re showing that, and if that output has any actual impact on the subject at hand.
Still not even sure who or what to care about? If, like me, you were lucky enough to be raised in a home of relative plenty, take some time to educate yourself about people who don't have what you have due to no fault of their own. Sit with that random indifference of life: I have for no reason, they don't for no reason.
It’s the least we can do from our high castle.
Hopefully, over time, each of us will feel the natural urge to show some compactssion somewhere, somehow, even if it’s to the people in our own communities who we’ve conveniently ignored for too long.