“Most people are not selfless. Most people don’t spend their time fighting for other people.”
When I say this, it is often directed at me and my beliefs. It is telling me, at the best, that most people are not like me.
I try to be as heroic as I can. I have had that dream, and I know that can come off as arrogant. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m trying to defend and promote an idea of hope, love and compassion that I am inadequate to defend and promote. Everyone is. The fight is beyond any one person, or even a thousand people.
I have taken an inventory of my interactions and I have found that the claim that most people are not selfless, is utter and complete horseshit.
Here are a fraction of the people I have interacted with in the last month alone. (Note: I am being vague about them in order to protect their privacy):
- A human rights reporter who has endured tremendous costs to make people see the problems of sex trafficking in Africa and elsewhere.
- A happy and centered friend who is playing fewer video games because he is making a social media site that will promote activist behavior.
- A Christian woman dealing with physical health issues and loss who is still not only there for me but for her friends, and is engaging with people on Reddit.
- A software designer and anarchist who is working toward being the best father possible and the best activist possible with limited resources.
- A Catholic psychiatrist who still is finding aspects of the human condition of pain and reaching in.
- A homeless activist.
- A programmer and manager who arranged a dharma talk to try to bring hope and freedom from pain to others.
- A Buddhist writer and scholar who taught people about freedom from pain.
- A Christian man who works with the elderly and protects his homeless friends.
- A female-to-male transgender person who is raising a child and also works at an LGBTQ center.
- A formerly Christian, now atheistic conservative who has protected victims of assault even as he has struggled with depression and who routinely volunteers at a food bank and elsewhere.
- A woman operating a wonderful store in the Pacific Northwest who has turned her struggles with depression into compassion for others.
- A spiritual healer.
- A man struggling with depression, cynicism and anger who is creating stories that entertain.
- A man who has helped his friends repeatedly and has become burnt out when they did not turn around.
- A man working on video games who has been massively supportive of me and offered to do whatever he could to ensure I kept fighting.
- A den mother who constantly brings compassion and joy to everyone in her life even with immense challenges.
- A Salvation Army USA employee who keeps his Facebook notifications on even as he sleeps because he needs to be there to respond to crises.
- A woman who has gone to Latin America to teach and volunteer.
On this list are my friends, my family, strangers and even people who tell me that most people suck.
These are totally ordinary people. They have pain and confusion. They find themselves going to church or to dharma talks or to therapists like everyone else, to find guidance and love.
They find themselves grappling with belief and faith and what is right to do every day. They face moral dilemmas and I am sure they falter and make mistakes in the face of those dilemmas. Many will become burnt out and quit, and they are still heroes for having tried in the first place.
In fact, even some of the angry activists I’ve interacted with who have hurled slurs at me were in their own way trying to improve the world, even if it was destructive and closed-minded.
I can speak to myself without fear of undermining my own confidences, and what I have done to try to help my neighbors has included writing resumes for free, volunteering to clean up a space after a dharma talk, writing blog posts to interact with people, and inspiring dozens of individuals to keep fighting and not give up. I have dealt with others’ suicide attempts (both successful and unsuccessful), with others’ illnesses, and many other events that have been immense challenges.
And it has been the best part of my life.
The math simply does not justify cynicism.
There are millions of people out there who are soldiers, civil rights attorneys, reporters, spiritual healers, doctors and nurses, therapists, support group leaders, pastors and preachers, monks, self-help teachers, activists (professional and amateur) and inspirational speakers. There are millions of people who work in non-governmental organizations, labor unions, charity groups, and so forth.
Even if only 10% of these people are effective, motivated practitioners, that is still likely millions of deeply selfless people. Some of these people might champion causes I disagree with or are on the other side of, but it is unquestionable that they care.
Consider the people who work in customer service professions and try their best to bring a smile to a person’s face.
Consider the people who pick up hitchhikers or help to jump start a stranger’s car.
Consider the people who are writers and creators who are making other people excited, happy and joyous.
Consider the comedians, actors and directors who participate in bringing people enjoyment and stimulation.
Consider the scientists and academics who research not just to satisfy their own curiosity but also to solve problems.
Consider the engineers who try to solve problems that directly impact everyone.
It’s not the minority of the population who serve others. In the post-industrial service-based economy, a massive section of the population is directly engaged with each other.
To all of these heroes, I say:
You humble me.
It is easy for me to get up and try to be heroic. I am immensely happy and centered. I have been blessed with great fortune. I can quit and my life will still be fine. I am sociologically privileged. I have incredible friends I have a wonderful support network and immense resources to entertain me.
I am staggered by the people who get up out of darkness and pain every morning that fight alongside me with so much skill and power.
I hope I get to meet hundreds more of you, and share how your superpowers work. I hope I get to inspire thousands or even millions of you to keep fighting skillfully, compassionately and tenaciously.
My own work, both non-fiction and fiction, is oriented at trying to help those who have this desire to begin. I try to articulate, to the highest degree possible, a better world. I am using all my emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical resources to do so. And I am doing so not least because all of these heroes who came into my life inspired me and made clear to me that I had to do so, to give back to them, to honor their struggle.
I hope anyone who is on the fence about acting to help others that reads this will see:
The world needs you, exactly as you are, right now.
There is so much good to do right around us. And there may be costs, but the benefits are beyond words. It is a way of defeating helplessness.
A single second of doing the right thing and believing in a better world is infinitely better than a lifetime of safety spent cowering at home.
We may need to educate ourselves to begin. We may need to talk to our friends and find out about issues. We may need to go online and look for volunteer locations in our neighborhoods. These organizations can even be a means to build our resumes, make professional connections, and meet wonderful new people who will enrich and diversify our lives.
We may need to find a mentor or ask around in your social networks. We may find that many of our friends we thought were totally mundane are actually doing something incredibly heroic.
The same kind of stories and art that inspires ourselves can bring others happiness. If a person writes a story that a hundred people read and are entertained by, that is an incredible achievement, and it may only take a few hours to write.
If an individual posts a hundred helpful or inspirational things on Facebook or Twitter and only one post helps someone, that individual has accomplished something wonderful. If it helps a hundred people, it was an investment of little time and effort for a wonderful achievement.
A person with a wonderful skill, from math to engineering, can volunteer to teach that skill and bring joy and curiosity.
Because bringing a smile to someone in pain, bringing a feeling of safety to someone who is scared or wrapping someone up in a blanket who is cold—these are the only superpowers worth having.
Never doubt that people need those who can inspire them to stay alive and be happy far more than they ever needed a vigilante.
And being the best superhero possible, just like any superhero in the comics, is a lifelong struggle that is rewarding every single day.
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Editorial Apprentice: Sue Adair/Editor: Travis May