Merry Christmas, everyone. I come from the future with a message of hope. Here’s the message:
“Fucking hell, fucking stop it, already.”-People from the future, to you.
Okay, I know that doesn’t sound especially hopeful or Christmas-y — but in the future, this is about as nice as messages get. For the past 10 years, we’ve stayed on the Escalator of Anger, which, unlike a normal escalator, runs at a reasonable speed and never breaks down.
Otherwise, it’s pretty similar to other escalators: It’s so commonplace that you don’t really think about how it works. It makes life easier. And, ultimately, it will tear your shoes apart if you’re not paying attention.
The Escalator of Anger is everywhere, and because it’s convenient, most people use it — very few of us would take the stairs when given the option.
I’m asking you to take the stairs.
We’ll call them the “stairs of love.”
Actually, never mind. We’ll just call them the stairs, because I don’t want to accidentally write a Michael Bolton song.
At an extremely basic level, most of you realize that you’re too angry right now. You understand that the world sucks and it’s starting to suck more and more, and you can probably point to “anger” and “hatred” as prime reasons for that sinking feeling you get when you read the news. Importantly, you believe that the other side has more responsibility to lower the temperature.
“Gosh,” you say, probably licking a lollipop or something, “why can’t people just be nicer to each other? Especially those assholes over there?”
Well, for starters, it’s difficult. It’s unrewarding. It doesn’t give you results. You can think of a thousand reasons not to do it, and all of them are perfectly valid.
To go back to our strained metaphor, you know that you’d be slightly healthier if you took the stairs instead of the escalator. But really, how much healthier would you be? Would you suddenly turn into an Adonis or a Venus or a Third Greek God With Less Gender-Specificity once you reached the top?
Of course not. You’d be the same schlubby mess. The escalator is easy, and it’s right there. You can even look at your phone while standing on it. So today, just this time, you’ll take the escalator. You’ll take the stairs tomorrow.
And every once in a while, you do take the stairs. You feel the strain in your muscles with every step, and when you get to the top, you’re out of breath; you wonder what the hell you were thinking 20 or 30 seconds ago. Then, hopefully, you’ll feel a little better about yourself — but tomorrow, you’ll go back to the escalator, just this time.
Being nicer to people isn’t easy.
That’s why Jesus Christ talked about it so much; he implored people to love thy neighbor as thyself. Emphasis mine, but also his, cause, y’know, Jesus. Loving yourself is easy (I perfected it during puberty), but loving others as much as yourself — without conditions — takes a lot of work.
A similar imploration came from Siddhartha Guatama in the Metta Sutta, who told his followers:
-The Buddha, but not the fat one.
“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world, above, below, and across, unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”
I attended a Buddhist sangha for several years, but honestly, as a writer, I think Buddha could learn from Christ’s ability to edit Himself. Still, the message is practically identical.
An alien looking at Earth would find both of these commandments simplistic. Of course you must love other people, and of course you must be consistent. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” might as well be “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Easy money.
As humans, we recognize that these ideas, while beautiful, are impractical, especially when sung over piano chords in an all-white room in New York, or by tone-deaf celebrities in a misguided PSA.
Great fuckin’ idea, Lennon. Gosh, why haven’t we just tried being peaceful? We should have just told the Nazis to chill out and played them a song about a walrus, you genius Beatle.
Setting Lennon aside: The greatest spiritual guides consistently spoke of love — not romantic love, but love towards all others, without conditions, without exceptions — because they were human, and they understood the difficulties of living in the material world.
They were not immune to them. If the Buddha was alive today and a person cut him off in traffic, his first thought wouldn’t be “go in peace,” it’d be something like, “motherfucker doesn’t know how lanes work.”
The thing that we have to practice is immediately tamping down that first impulse and allowing the better expressions of our humanity to take over.
And for consistency’s sake, that applies to anti-vaxxers.
Weren’t expecting that, were you?
I’m writing this under the assumption that most readers (all 20 of you, according to my website’s analytic tools) are vaccinated. I have seen many of you express antipathy towards anti-vaxxers for being selfish and willfully ignorant. I’ve expressed that antipathy, too.
There’s something to be said for the intentional application of antipathy, and I’m already bloviating, so I’ll say it: You certainly don’t have to accept the positions of someone who’s hurting society and endangering your loved ones (and to be clear, that’s what they’re doing). But you can’t get through to them by mocking them, and when you’re dunking on them at every opportunity, you lose the high ground.
There’s a subreddit I’ve followed for a while called /r/hermancainaward (I’m not linking it here). In this community, people post pictures of folks that they know who were rabidly anti-vax who eventually got COVID and got sick. Many of them have died.
I look at the posts, and part of me wants to join in the celebration of the death of another Part Of The Problem. Occasionally, there’s a post from someone who says that the subreddit convinced them to get vaccinated. That’s a good thing.
But I just can’t get behind the concept. These dead people aren’t Herman Cain — who had plenty of access to the resources he needed to do better, and who continues to deny the impact of COVID-19 from the grave via Twitter.
But look, these people aren’t that guy. They’re neighbors, friends, and family members. Sometimes, their posts allude to their interests: bowling, football, TV shows. Sometimes, all of that information is cut out, but the person’s profile picture shows them smiling with their daughters, sons, or spouses.
People are multifaceted. If you can’t love part of them, find some other part to love.
“But what about Herman Cain himself? What about Hitler?“
Oh, man, I didn’t think you were going there. You’re really coming into this hot, Person From The Past.
Okay. Well, Hitler did some nice things, too. Yes, he actually did; he financially supported his sister when she was extremely ill, an act of selfless love that is undeniably, objectively human.
And then, y’know, he annexed the Sudetenland, and then became the most enduring symbol of hate in history. Fuck Hitler, obviously.
And I’m sorry, but your neighbor with the Trump flag isn’t Hitler. Not yet. Mine regularly brings me vegetables, and Hitler never brings me vegetables.
My neighbor and I have argued a bit about politics and I don’t back down from my positions, but I still let her dog out when she’s working late, and she still asks how our herb garden is doing. In my experience with her, she’s a good person.
You can be consistent with your beliefs while still extending empathy and love to the people you disagree with. When their views start affecting others, this becomes difficult, and at a certain point, there’s a line; if your geriatric neighbor heads to the local trailer park to terrorize immigrants with his AR-15, the fact that he helped you build a canoe shouldn’t stop you from telling him to fuck right off.
Most of the people that frustrate us aren’t at that point yet. No, really. I know you feel that they’re irredeemable — they’re not.
People who oppose vaccinations can change their minds. People who hoist the Trump flag might change their opinions when they realize that their antifa neighbor is helping the community more than they are.
“But what if it doesn’t work? What if being empathetic does nothing?”
That’s a possibility, I suppose, but if empathy is ineffective, I don’t like our odds. If people can’t change, we must kill everyone who has passed the point of irredeemability.
I’m totally serious. If they’re hurting people, we don’t want them in society, and we have an ethical obligation to eliminate them. We must gather guns and go into the street and kill them, or at the very least, put them into prisons.
I’m not going to do that. Sounds pretty Hitler-y.
And anyway, I think that history does show that a practical application of empathy can be extremely powerful. Governments tend to fall when they stop helping their people; cultures disintegrate when they become self-obsessed. Empathy is fundamental to us for a reason.
I could be wrong. Maybe, on a macro scale, empathy isn’t important. All I know is that the people who study this stuff believe that the United States has an empathy deficit, and things aren’t great in your time (or here in the future, for that matter). Maybe it’s worth a shot. Might as well try it.
Now, on an individual level, I am more confident in the benefits.
I believe in empathy. When I have successfully applied it, I have seen things improve. Gradually, I think I’ve become a (slightly) better person. I’ve convinced a couple of folks to get vaccinated (and if you’re reading this on the other side of the fence, please, deeply consider your biases and read this). I have a fine relationship with my neighbor, and I’ve successfully convinced her to stop calling our Guatemalan friend “my favorite Mexican.”
Practically, you won’t notice the gains right away, so temper your expectations. After all, you’re just taking the stairs.
You might see more results by joining a local mutual aid organization or taking the day off work to help someone prepare their resume, or setting up a food drive, or spending your Christmas money on a friend’s medical bills.
You can’t do that type of stuff every day, but you can take the stairs.
Today — in the future — we’re all near the top of the escalator. None of us are paying attention, and we’ve all lost our shoes. There’s a lot of pushing and quite a bit of fighting.
I don’t know what’s at the top, but I know it isn’t good. The escalator runs in one direction, and I imagine we’re going to struggle with each other trying to find a way back down.
You’re not at the bottom, but you’re not anywhere close to the top.
So please, please: Do whatever you can to get back down to the ground.
– With love, the Surprisingly Talkative Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come.
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