A quiet Saturday morning, reading the newspapers that have piled up during the week. As is true everywhere, the news that gets printed is mostly bad.
Here’s an article about prostitution in Europe, where laws regulating sex for money differ from nation to nation. It turns out that in countries where the laws are the most generous for the women involved, there is more human trafficking of unwilling women from Eastern Europe and Africa, thousands per year, smuggled across borders, forced into prostitution.
Here’s a long article about how collective farms in East Germany were dissolved into private property after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the unification of Germany. Many, perhaps most farmers whose land, tools, and animals had been taken by the Communist state in the 1950s to be agglomerated into collective farms received much less in this redistribution than they originally owned. The local big shots, especially collective farm managers, used their connections and knowledge to skirt the laws and give themselves the lion’s share of collective land. Nearly 30 years later, social resentment burns quietly across the rural landscape.
On Friday, the two airports in Berlin were completely shut down by a strike of the ground crew who guide the planes in and out of the gates, and the baggage handlers who load and unload the planes. Their union asks for a raise from $10 to $11 an hour, but the employers offer 30 cents. Thousands of passengers and potential passengers are out of luck.
Germany and Turkey are engaged in a bitter argument sparked by the increasingly dictatorial politics of Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan. The correspondent for a major German newspaper, who reported on the involvement of Erdoğan’s son-in-law in secretly supplying weapons to the terrorist Islamic State, has been arrested as a spy. Like hundreds of other journalists in Turkey, he sits in prison for doing his job. German protests have had no effect.
A short report about a group of young men who beat up another man because he is gay.
There is so much bad news and so many innocent people who are hurting. Sometimes it’s just about inevitable conflicts, where both sides have reasonable arguments, but their interests clash. Usually the better-off win. Sometimes it’s about real injustices, where bad people pursue their own greedy self-interest, not caring about what happens to others. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
The storm of bad news from across the world delivered to us now even on our phones can be numbing. The bigger the world is, the smaller we feel. We hear more about global events, but feel less personally connected, less involved in daily realities. Another disaster, what can I do? Another injustice, another tragedy, another conflict far out of my reach. Not my fault, not my problem.
My instinct is to want to help, to try to solve the problem, to make people happy. I say instinct, because the feeling is not rational. I don’t know any of the people involved in those stories I read. I can’t even do much for the woman who sits every day at the entrance to my subway station, begging pathetically in some unknown language. Whether I give her a few coins or not, I can’t solve her problems.
Pope Francis has thought about human moral responsibilities much more clearly than most. He says, give the woman a coin when she asks, because “it’s always right” to give to someone in need. He emphasized that the giving should be accompanied by respect and compassion. See the person to whom you give, look them in the eyes.
I can’t help journalists in Turkey or farmers in eastern Germany, but I can contribute to her welfare, even if only a little bit. If I do, I’m a bit happier, and so is she. The purpose is not to make me feel good, but to recognize our ability to influence our surroundings. If we practice charity, we get better at it. We lengthen our reach an inch at a time. We climb out of self-pitying despair towards active engagement with our world. We recognize our social nature.
The ideology of individualism is strong in America. Democracy is founded on the right to be an individual, different from the crowd, able to determine our own journey. But individualism turns too easily into egotism, greed, disdain for others, everyone for themselves. We must combine the yin of individualism with the yang of altruism. What do others want? Are they as justified as I am? Can I help them rather than stand in their way?
Just asking, “what can I do?” with an open mind brings us out of ourselves and closer to others. In many cases, the answer is “nothing”. But not in every case.
I drop a coin in her cup. We are both better off. So is the world.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 14, 2017