What responsibilities do we have to one another? The answer seems to vary based on whether we regard the “other” as inside or outside our group. For those inside our closest groups, we have compassion; we make sacrifices. Outside our groups, too many of us look around, judge others, and close ourselves off.
We recognize immediately the responsibility we have to those in our families. We look at our children, who need help to take care of their basic needs. We look at our elders, who return to a greater state of need as they age. We look at our siblings, who need care when they encounter an illness or challenge in life. We see those in our most intimate groups, those with whom we choose to associate most closely, and recognize that we have obligations to them.
Then we turn and look at a homeless person living in a tent beneath an overpass. We look at a migrant family living in a police station, having fled violence and displacement in their home country. We look at a young mother, trying to support herself and her 3 children on a minimum wage salary and inconsistent work hours. Some of us, at some times, are able to muster some empathy for them as well. But all too often, it is simple for us to disregard and dismiss them. It is too easy for us to either judge them and their choices, or to believe that those needs are too much for us to take on.
I should personalize this, because even my saying “we” rather than “I” could be an attempt to avoid looking my responsibility in the eye. All too often, it is simple for me to turn away.
One evening last weekend, I was walking out of the parking garage where we keep our car when I saw a woman huddled in the corner. She was eating something from a paper bag and did not look up at me as I passed. This was where she would be spending the night. Something about seeing her hit me. I recognized that often, I pass people panhandling on the street; sometimes I give them money, other times not. But I often excuse myself by believing that someone else will help them, or that maybe they have somewhere to stay when night approaches. Seeing a woman staying in our parking garage hit me differently. She clearly had no other place to go.
I went inside our home and grabbed a blanket and some food, then walked back out to her. “Do you want this blanket?” I asked. She did not answer. “I brought some food, too.” She looked at me with no reply. “I’ll just leave this here in case you want it,” I said, setting the items down and walking away. I was struck again by the limits of what I could do. I live several hundred yards from the spot where this woman planned to spend the night. I live in a comfortable condo, with beds, running water, plenty of food. Even more than that, I have resources of income, wealth, and health insurance from a job. And even beyond that, I have family members who would bail me out if ever those other resources failed me. I don’t know what she had when she was born or what she has now, but I have to believe that many systems failed her to lead her to this point in her life.
Do our mutual obligations flow from our choices, or from our inheritance of shared humanity? Too often, I regard my shared group members as the only ones who deserve my obligations. And look, of course it is natural that I devote more of my attention, care, and resources to my own child than someone I just saw on the street. I am not arguing otherwise. I am proposing that a situation where we devote all of our attention, care, and resources to our child to the exclusion of the rest of our human family is equally reprehensible. If my focus on my child means that I try to grab all the resources, benefits, and opportunities for them to the exclusion of everyone else, that is a problem.
That is how an impulse towards caring becomes corrupted. That is how we are left blaming the homeless rather than those who took the wealth. That is how we end up blaming the migrant family rather than those who create the destabilizing conditions that lead to migration. That is how we end up blaming struggling parents rather than those who benefit from the current system of inequality.
It is naive to believe that we can snap our fingers and magically become one human family that values every member equally. But it is equally naive to believe that we can solve our problems by reinforcing the privilege and inequality that already exist. Instead, each moment, we must do the difficult work of recognizing what we have in common – extending empathy from our child to the homeless woman. From our parent to the migrant. From our familial sibling to our human sibling. This is the work that grows mutual obligation from the soil of that shared humanity.
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