Hands Off! Laissez-Faire. Not My Problem. Do We Have Collective Responsibilities for the World Around Us?

common good house buildingRecently I was biking along a park path when Mother Nature called. I spotted a city facility nearby, so off I hopped to make a visit. After I’d done my business, good citizen and supporter of public hygiene that I am, I flushed the toilet. Not a gurgle. Tried several more time to no avail.

Noticing several men nearby at work to set up for a public event, I approached them to tell them of the problem The first and younger one said he had no phone and didn’t know how to contact a manager anyway. The second and older had a phone as well as a manager’s contact info, but he informed me, a clogged toilet was “not my responsibility.” I suggested the restroom would quickly become his responsibility when five hundred angry party-goers were forced to duck behind bushes to relieve themselves.

I’ve always felt the collective good is something we all share a responsibility for. Not that we need to do back flips to help. Neither that we interfere in someone’s private interests. But something occurring in the great wide world that affects a number of us should be an item to which we pay attention.

Years ago a friend from Eastern Europe told me one problem with communism had been that no one felt answerable for anything because they felt no ownership. The government was in charge and to blame for anything that went awry. If your apartment needed repairs, you didn’t need to arrange for them. You simply stood around and complained. Since the collective was in charge, in fact no one was in charge.

A number of religions and philosophies urge us to take shared responsibility for the common good. I have to think a cooperative approach would benefit us most of the time. While repair of a broken lav comes nowhere close to the plight of millions of refugees in Europe, still the principle seems the same. If something’s busted, fix it.

Not everyone agrees with me. Perhaps they can convince 7.6 million Syrian refugees.

East, West, Home Is Best, But Where?

When I walk to the Y to exercise, I sometimes pass people on a corner next to a church. By and large male, they are also scruffy, stinky, poorly dressed. They block the sidewalk with their duffels, backpacks, bikes, grocery carts. They gather on this particular corner because the church distributes free sandwiches at lunch. These are the homeless in Denver, but they could be anywhere (http://www.ibiblio.org/rcip/research.html).

My initial feeling whenever I pass, or try to pass, is one of annoyance, for they block access to the sidewalk, spill over to the parking strip, perch on stairs, walls and courtyards, blow cigarette smoke hither and yon. Some have dogs as mangy as themselves, many tote items that should be in junkyards—a frayed and torn sleeping bag, a shower head, a battered water jug, rope, a small ironing board. I wonder why the church officials or city authorities don’t demand compliance with public nuisance ordinances or common courtesy.

Then I question when and how I moved from sympathy or even mere apathy to hostility. These are people with no roof over their heads, few resources for health care or decent food, little access to opportunities for learning and entertainment. They don’t ask me for money or any sort of help. All I have to do is side-step them.

I don’t categorize myself as a “bootstrapper,” those who claim the homeless should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as if they even had boots with straps on them. Perhaps I’m getting numb to social problems. Perhaps I’ve seen too many programs to help the indigent and ill that fail, or I’ve listened to too many leaders claim they have the solution, and that never happens. Perhaps I’m tired of even thinking about the issue of homelessness. Perhaps I’m sick to my stomach at the thought that a country as blessed as this one cannot and will not care for those who can’t manage on their own.

As I sit in my home and consider, I realize what I feel is remorse that I can’t fix the problem. When I pass a homeless person, I can’t avoid the collective guilt we all share, whether we admit this or not. So I choose to be annoyed, not accountable.

(One group trying to do something is the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, http://www.coloradocoalition.org/)