A few weeks ago my family and I were out at a small-town festival when suddenly an elderly woman in a motorized wheelchair took a tumble over the side of a street curb. Within seconds she was surrounded by people. A couple of the guys lifted the woman’s chair back up and hoisted her into it. One girl ran into the pharmacy to ask for some supplies to clean this woman’s wounds, and the pharmacy donated a brand new first aid kit just like that. A few others asked whom we could call for her while others cleaned her cuts and put the band-aids on.
We didn’t know each other from Adam, but we had all seen that someone needed help and we ran to give it.
It’s certainly not uncommon to see human beings come to each other’s aid when another is in trouble—and throughout the devastation in Texas, we’ve seen this in spades.
Why do people do that?
As a Bible-believing Christian, I know that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and that because of our fallen nature, we humans have to fight selfishness and unkindness every day of our lives.
I also know that, believers or not, we all have God’s law written on our hearts (Romans 2:14-15)—which means even someone who rejects what Christ did to pay for our sin has the capacity to be a good and decent person, because, thanks to that law on our hearts, we know the difference between right and wrong. It’s what we commonly call a “conscience,” and while it doesn’t prevent people from still doing evil, it’s also the only thing that explains why people are good to others when there’s ZERO to gain from it.
No, I didn’t come here today to talk about theology. The point is simply this: bad situations don’t magically create good people; they awaken what is already within them.
And yet, writing about the disastrous Hurricane Harvey and the miles-long lines of pickup trucks hauling boats, nurses nationwide answering calls for extra aid, and teenagers rescuing dozens of people with a simple fishing boat—Slate.com’s Katy Waldman asks “what if America is less a glorious nation of do-gooders awaiting the chance to exercise their altruism than a moral junior varsity team elevated by circumstance?”
She continued: “Rebecca Solnit argues that emergencies provoke from us a conditional virtue. They create provisional utopias, communities in which the usual—selfish, capitalistic—rules don’t apply,” and “These waterlogged suburbs have become zones of exemption, where norms hang suspended and something lovelier and more communal has been allowed to flourish in their place.”
In other words, America and Americans are generally crummy. But bad situations temporarily transform these crummy selfish people into decent human beings, and that’s where we get the hordes of private citizens making a bee-line for the Texas disaster zone—running towards danger instead of away from it.
My jaw was on the floor reading that. In a time when we daily see the most menial of things used for political gain and social media scores (see: Melania Trump’s shoes) I thought there was ONE thing sacred; one thing people couldn’t find a way to criticize and demean.
I was wrong.
Someone actually found a way to (excuse the phrase) rain on something beautiful. Bravo. I have to hand it to the author—that took some creativity.
But she’s wrong. Dead wrong.
If we’re nothing more than a “moral junior varsity team” living in a sordid bubble of “selfish, capitalistic rules,” then why would more sordid awfulness (i.e. an unprecedented disaster) suddenly prompt a ray of sunshine in our cold dark capitalistic (nice political jab, by the way) hearts?
You know, it’s funny—while media outlets ignore the TRUE scum in America (see: the largely ignored—and even at times media-justified—violence of Antifa), Slate steeps to a new low in criticizing the good in America. But don't worry; the point of her piece is “obviously not to diminish the big-hearted men and women who rose to the occasion;” she’s just pointing out that they're sort of "forced" to be good.
Because of circumstances.
It makes absolutely no sense. How could awfulness prompt awful people to suddenly be good? What magical potion, what “spooky dust” (as I once heard someone say), could create such an unlikely phenomenon?
The truth is that I don’t need to prove Ms. Waldman wrong with my own words; thousands of people already did that with their actions in the face of something that should have rooted them in their inherent human selfishness even more. A businessman gave up entire stores’ worth of inventory to give people a place to stay. Oklahoma Gas & Electric sent an army of trucks to help restore power. Citizens rode around looking for trapped animals to free. A Houston police officer ignored pleas from his wife to stay home from work because of the floods, and instead tried to get into work—ultimately drowning in the process.
I ask again: How could awfulness prompt awful people to suddenly be good?
The inherent selfishness that Ms. Waldman cites (and yes, we do have selfishness) is a strong thing. No tragedy big enough could wake us from that selfishness if not for the conscience we all have inside. If anything, those tragedies would push us further from good—especially when we have NOTHING to gain and EVERYTHING to lose by helping our fellow man.
This is ridiculous. This is swill. This is everything that is wrong with this country, which increasingly divides itself against itself every day—thanks in large part to people like Ms. Waldman.
On a human level, we’re not so different from others around the world—certainly not “better” in the sense of superiority. But on a cultural level, the differences are vast. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his 1831 visit to the United States, “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
By “association,” he meant Americans independently coming together to find a solution for something without needing government to do it for them:
“They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner, they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.”
That’s us. That’s our culture. Combine this with the inherent conscience each man, woman and child carries within them from birth, is it any shock that Americans spring into action when something needs to be done, regardless of whether or not the government asks them to do it? And heck, it’s not even just here. We send millions in aid overseas every year; we’ve shed blood in the place of other nations so that they may be free. And as yet another catastrophic hurricane churns toward us, we’ll see the same incredible spirit show itself again.
We are not, as Ms. Waldman puts it, celebrating these heroic actions for the “purpose of national mythmaking.”
It’s not a myth.
Mary Ramirez is a full-time writer and creator of www.afuturefree.com (a political commentary blog). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree