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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Somebody else's problem

A guy I used to game with had a knack for colorful phrases… or maybe he just repeated stuff he heard on Saturday Night Live, I don’t know; at that time in my life I didn’t own a TV (one big reason that, to me, Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo are still ‘the new guys’ on SNL).

One of the things my gaming buddy used to say a lot, when we’d be talking about various political issues or social difficulties, was “Well, that would be… somebody else’s problem, right?”

Then he’d laugh. Sometimes I would too. Mean spirited selfishness is funny; we’ve known that since Laurel & Hardy, and certainly shows like Seinfeld have driven the point home well in the last decade or so.

But let’s pause and look at that phrase a little bit longer.

Somebody else’s problem.

It’s a common impulse. We all have problems of our own, and our perception is, nobody is helping us with them, right? We have to solve our own problems, it’s something that’s expected of mature adults in our society, so why shouldn’t other people be able to solve theirs? Why should somebody else’s problems become ours?

“God doesn’t give anyone a challenge they can’t handle.” That’s something else I’ve heard from various sources throughout the course of my life. And it fits right into the Somebody Else’s Problem philosophy. If we assume the universe is an orderly place, kept well in hand by a Divine Being who acts as a completely fair referee to all living creatures, it makes things so much easier. We see someone struggling under some enormous burden – a birth defect, a crippling injury, a debilitating disease, ignorance, or just plain straight up poverty – and we comfort ourselves with the notion that whatever problems Somebody Else may have, God, that great wonderful guy in the zebra-striped shirt in the sky, has also given that same Somebody Else the resources to successfully deal with it.

Man, I’d love to live in that world. That’s the world of the family sitcom or comedy drama from the 1950s through the 1970s, a world where every issue, every problem, every challenge, every difficulty that arises is simple enough to be successfully resolved, once and for all time, in 22 or 44 minutes, right before the credits roll. Where every conundrum can be magically worked out simply by being honest with whoever the show’s authority figure is, or by asking that same authority figure for help when you need it. Where you can always tell the bad people from the good people and the wise folks from the fools, often simply by checking their wardrobes.

I suspect we’d all love to live in that world. There’s no racial strife there, at least, not for longer than a single episode which ends (like all episodes) with everyone hugging. That’s the world where every kid is happy except for momentary bouts of gloom caused by minor deviations from mainstream behavior. It’s a world where nearly every parent, every teacher, every cop, every fireman, every government official, is wise and strong and courageous and loving. Everyone there is well intentioned and has a good heart. Even the mean people and the bullies can be redeemed with a little bit of love and positive attention. Nobody is sick for very long, nobody is crippled, nobody is even ugly (hell, very few people are non-white, for that matter), and everybody that does have a problem that can’t be neatly solved (like the very rare person with a disability who only shows up for the obligatory Let’s Be Sensitive To People With Disabilities episode) is darned cheerful about it, too. God. They’re SO brave.

Of course, what these Father Knows Best trips to fantasy land really tell us, if we pay attention, is that the secret to creating a social paradise is a very simple one – neuter everyone. This, apparently, is the price of that perfect world from a bygone TV era – nobody ever has sex with anyone, at all. At most, in the steamier shows that only come on after 9 pm when little Biff and baby Kathy are in bed, people make out a little. I’m not sure that’s the lesson that the producers of 7th Heaven and The Partridge Family were really trying to impart, but it’s certainly implicit in pretty much every minute of such programs’ screen time. A world without sex is, apparently, Utopia. Of course, you’re going to run out of kids in twenty years or so, and out of humans entirely in a century, and I have to assume the suicide rate is nearly as high as the Prozac count in nearly every perfect family’s medicine cabinet… but these are small sacrifices to make on the road to Shangri La, right?

Regardless of our desires, however, we can’t live in that happy Golden Age of Television fantasy land. Here in what we mostly sane folks more or less agree is actual reality, that sweet little homily about God only giving us problems we have the strength to handle is a gigantic load of horseshit. God gives people problems they can’t handle all the time. God hands out crippling and disfiguring injuries and diseases like a schoolyard pusher passing around free dimebags to new customers. God has seen fit to create and maintain a world in which every living being needs to eat to continue to live, and eat well to continue to live well, and, amazingly enough, a great many people in the world… I’m not talking dozens or hundreds or thousands here, I mean, millions of them, a whopping percentage of which are children… can’t do the former, and millions more can’t do the latter. To say that God doesn’t give anyone a problem they don’t have the ability to handle on their own is, at best, myopic chuckleheadedness, and at worst, deliberately cultivated cruelty. The world sucks, most people are damaged goods, many of them right out of the womb… they simply cannot help themselves. Their difficulties, their issues, their defects, their challenges become, by definition, Somebody Else’s Problem.

I will, however, indulge in one perhaps overly optimistic, sweet sounding homily – Every living being has something to offer to the universe. Everyone, no matter how depraved or vile or seemingly trivial or unimportant, has some kind of gift, some kind of talent, something unique about them that, if they could find it, and it could be properly cultivated, could be employed to make the world a better place. I really believe that, and I suppose that makes me a sap, but it’s one reason why I believe that Somebody Else’s Problem… is, in fact, Everybody Else’s Problem.

Because when we help people solve the problems they can’t solve themselves… then they have the ability to turn around and help us solve the problems that we can’t solve.

It’s important to understand, when dealing with Somebody Else’s Problem Syndrome, that we are rarely that honest in describing it. That’s why it’s a funny joke; it’s one of those things we all think, but hardly ever say out loud. When we actually talk about our reluctance to help strangers who mean little or nothing to us, in person or through our taxes, we use ringing phrases like self sufficiency, and self reliance, and independence, and we speak in Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne cadences as we remark on 'looking after one's own' and 'taking care of yourself' and 'carrying your own water'. We claim a proud and lofty disdain for all outside aid, generally referring to such as 'goddam interference' and ‘no good guv’mint charity’ and to those who would proffer such distasteful largesse as 'lousy socialist busybodies'.

Under the wonderful American Frontier rhetoric, though, it’s all still Somebody Else's Problem. The flip side of self reliance is xenophobia; the dark mirror image of independence is isolationism. And thus we can see that the essential underlying principle we are speaking of here is not merely 'carrying your own water' or 'I can make it on my own', but also 'I don't care about you' and ‘Fuck off, buddy’.

Somewhere in the background, very faintly, Bruce Hornsby softly croons “Just to be funny he says, ‘get a job’…”

The reality of the world is, many people… I’d say most, in fact, I’m very tempted to say ‘all’… have problems they themselves cannot solve. Yearning for a simpler, happier place, where all children are healthy and happy, people have jobs they like where they make enough money to support their families and maintain a strapping bank account, everyone knows their place and nobody squabbles about race or religion or sexual harassment, it's sunny in the summer and it always snows at Christmas, people smile and nod on the streets, all entertainment is wholesome, we all leave our doors unlocked and there are aromatic pies cooling on every windowsill, everything is decent and proper and nobody gets any diseases worse than a cold, or has any medical conditions more serious than tonsilitis or an ailing appendix... well, certainly, longing for such a wonderland, and wishing mightily that we could live there, and not in the fucked up, stressed out, screwed over, imperfect, unjust, often hateful world we all actually have to inhabit... that's natural enough.

But out in the imperfect world we are all actually stuck with... hell, I don't know. Maybe this self reliance thing can work, for some people. Maybe there are folks out there who really do 'take care of their own' and who really don't need any 'interfering busybodies' to help them out. If these people exist, I for one admire the gumbo out of them. These fine men and women of true independent spirit are an inspiration to us all. They live their lives wild and free, carrying their own water, proud and independent, and never ever ask for anyone else’s help with anything. These guys have never once in their lives called their landlord, a plumber, an electrician, or an HVAC guy. They’ve never filed an insurance claim or a police report. They’ve never sought care from a medical professional, dialed 911, cashed a paycheck or used an ATM card, logged onto the Internet, eaten in a restaurant, or had food delivered to the house. They probably don’t watch TV, but if they did, it would be a television they built their damn selves, blowing the glass for all the tubes in their own basements out of sand they carted in from their own beaches, cutting down the trees from their own forests to make the wood for the cabinet, mining and refining the ore and then smelting the metals for the circuitry. And they do all this in a house they built themselves, after digging their own basement with either their own two hands, a hoe they made out of a stick and a piece of sharp rock, or a bulldozer they built using that same home made backyard assembly line-factory they're going to put into their basement and make TVs with once they get the basement dug in the first place.

Honest to Jesus, these people amaze me. They raise their own cattle, milk them, slaughter them, and skin them; cut their own meat and tan their own leather. They build their own automobiles and refine their own petroleum products from the output of the fully functional oil well in their side lots. They only drive on roads they themselves have surveyed, cleared, graded, and paved, and they damn well lay their own sidewalks, too. That cup they’re drinking from? They threw it and baked it their damn selves with their own wheel and kiln. That fluid they’re imbibing with such relish? Whatever it is, they made it themselves, presumably, or at least dug the well and installed the pump. These are some impressive motherfuckers, I tell you this in truth.

If you’re not one of these wonderful people… and if you are, for God’s sake, send me an email, just as soon as you get done building your own computer and making your own fiber optic cable and setting up your own Internet browsing software from scratch… then you pretty much have to fess ‘up. Admit it – however much we may wish otherwise, this whole self reliance thing really doesn't work. Whether we like it or not, we live amidst a vast and intricate social fabric, where most of the threads have a purpose. They do things for us we find useful or desirable, and, presumably, we do things back that they find equally practical or pleasant. That's how it works. We help each other get through the day, every day, and if we didn't, none of us would make it very far.

Somebody Else's Problem? Given how other-reliant we all are in our day to day lives, we can now see this exposed for the hypocrisy it is. We can't solve our own problems; we've never been able to. We can't deliver our own mail, we can't fix our own computers or snake our own drains; hell, many of us can't program our own VCRs. And if we all need so much help from other people, people with different training and expertise than we have, then who are we to begrudge giving other people help we can provide when they need it.

Yeah, but that's the thing, I hear someone in the audience shouting. Nobody is opposed to a fair exchange of goods and services; you fix my stopped up drain and I'll repair your computer; you get that annoying knock out of my car's exhaust system and I'll treat your kid's runny nose. That's how it's supposed to work, that's the social contract in action. And we all agree to follow the rules and obey the law and behave like good, decent, proper citizens and never disturb the peace or agitate each other, and all will be well. All Will Be Well!

It's, you know, the parasites and the slackers that decent folks object to. The lazy people who expect hard working taxpayers to support them and their worthless kids while they stay at home and watch Oprah. The worthless, greedy, ungrateful types who won't be content with decent jobs at decent pay and cheap housing in their own neighborhoods, who keep demanding higher educational opportunities, higher status work, higher pay, better housing -- nearly as good as white people, goddam them! And they want to have their own funny looking churches they call by stupid names, and they want to give their kids stupid names, and celebrate Winter Solstice holidays that aren't Christmas, and I don't know what the fuck all else; it's maddening and insane. And these people want to drive in our streets and send their kids to our schools and work in our offices and sit in our restaurants and take our jobs and bid on our contracts and have their own cable TV networks and holy Christ, we have to put up with all that shit and then, they want to whine at us about having problems? Problems that we're supposed to solve for them?

Since when is that the American Way? What the hell, did we lose a war or something?

See, here's the thing. I think people of one race solving problems for people of another race is the American Way. We needed cheap domestic labor, we hijacked half the population of the African continent and put them to work in the fields of the American South, and whipped their asses when they wouldn't work, hunted them with dogs when they ran away, and hung 'em high when they got too uppity. We needed railroads laid from coast to coast, we imported the heathen Chinee, and shot the fucker when he wanted higher wages and slightly better treatment. When those red skinned bastards who had the land first got uppity with us, we bribed other red skinned bastards to fight them for us.

For that matter, most of our independent frontiersman ancestors that we are all so proud of got here originally as indentured servants. And if our Founding Fathers hadn't all gotten together to solve each other's problems as regards the British, we wouldn't be having these arguments today.

If the United States of America has any claim to uniqueness as a political entity, it doesn’t lie in finding new, grand sounding ways to restate the phrase Somebody Else’s Problem. It stems from the fact that America truly is a nation founded by refugees, runaways, and other wretched refuse, a place where people who, in the immortal words of Bill Murray, got thrown out of every country in Europe came, mostly to be left alone… but they discovered when they got here that being left alone is the one thing that will never happen in this world if you have anything anyone else wants. So the scum and flotsam of the Earth had to come together as one entity, to solve their mutual problems.

We started by kicking the British out. Over the course of the past three centuries, we’ve more or less remembered how we began, what the foundation of our country is, and where we draw our strength from – by inviting in outsiders, and adding their particular strengths and quirks and even weaknesses to the bizarre but resilient alloy that is America. We make mistakes, we slip back into darkness and ignorance, we do terrible things sometimes. In the past we’ve built entire industries on slavery, we’ve committed genocide, we’ve broken treaties and conducted chemical warfare and covertly experimented on our own people and locked up our own citizenry simply because they looked different from us… but when we made those mistakes we learned from them, and we moved forward, and we’ve done our best to put those things behind us, sometimes at terrible, terrible cost… but we’ve always emerged from these things stronger for the experience.

Now we are backsliding again. We are trying to slam the doors closed to one group of brown people we don’t like who live nearby, while we are doing our level best to wipe out another group of brown people we really don’t like who live on the other side of the world, on land that has resources that we covet. Our national rhetoric is filled with hate and vitriol and rage, our foreign policy is defined by secret torture and illegal occupation and mass murder, our democracy has been undermined and humiliated, our liberties are diminished and endangered, and the people in power over us brazenly claim to be above even the watered down, ridiculously biased laws they themselves have allowed to be enacted.

And we are growing numb to it all, and the opiate of the American masses is a simple mantra:

It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

It isn’t. It’s our problem. It’s your problem, and it’s my problem, and it’s your mom’s problem, and your kids’ problem. I don’t know what to do about it, but maybe it’s a start to simply acknowledge that This Is All Of Our Problem. We have to do something about it.

Probably something more than just blogging about it, but I’m goddamned if I have much of an idea what.

3 Comments:

At 2:32 AM , Anonymous Nate said...

Empathy. Social responsibility. Whatever you want to call it; what you're talking about (caring about other people's problems) is little more than an ideal that some pay lip service to these days.

I remember, vaguely, when I used to care. It was a long time ago, before I ran head-on into the bitter reality of the world, as a fresh-faced boy, with a head full of Christian idealism, and love for my fellow man.

Then I went to work, started paying taxes, read the newspaper, watched the news, listened to the gossip around the water cooler at work. I saw the other life of management, and the dichotomy of greed that infects every strata of American society. And slowly, like the bedrock of the great falls, my empathy began to erode.

I expect it was my empathy for the extremes of the human condition that went first. Billionaires that couldn't find joy, Africans starving en masse. What could I, a lone man with limited resources, possibly do to aid them? What effort could I put forth that would be more effective than railing against the tides?

Like dominoes, the first to fall started a chain reaction, slow at first, but building, ever building. Victims of war, female execs hitting a glass ceiling? Nothing I can do, I'm just one guy with no influence at all.

And then, the dominoes hit the tricky stuff, the ramps, the slides, the slippery slopes.

People with AIDS, double-taxed shareholders? Why should I care? I'll never get AIDS, and I'm too poor to buy stocks. And I went from rationalization, to justification. From helpless sympathy, to lack of empathy. On with the turning away.

The more problems you turn your eyes from, the easier it gets. The thing is, there's so many problems that are so painful to look at, that if you don't turn away, you lose the ability to function. How the hell would I get through the day, if I spent it worrying about everyone else on earth?

I know these problems exist, I know they're real, and I know, or at least I'm morally cvertain, that solutions exist. But I also know that nothing I can do will bring these solutions about. So, I've learned to pick my battles.

My dad died of a stroke, but it was diabetes that ruined the quality of his life long before that, so I looked around, and joined the Lions Club because they work to fight diabetes, and now I help run and fund a summer day camp for kids with Type I diabetes. It's not much, not even a finger in the dike (no jokes please), but it's what I can do. It's what I do to buy me the right to ignore the rest of it.

It's what lets me call all those other problems, somebody else's problems. I've stepped up and taken a whack at juvenile diabetes. I help educate children in how to take care of their condition. Someone else needs to step up and take a whack at some of the other stuff.

Somebody else needs to make it their problem.

 
At 2:39 AM , Anonymous Asshole said...

Oh, oh yeah. SEP? That's from Douglas Adams, the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galazy series.

 
At 10:12 PM , Blogger SuperFiancee said...

Excellent post, my love. Except for the part where you were (unintentionally, I'll admit) heaping the guilt on me.

And I'm really digging on (and sadly relating entirely too much to) Nate's response as well.

I suppose I'm terribly guilty of not doing enough. I always have better intentions and do a few things. But not nearly enough. Certainly not as much as I could or should.

Thanks for the reminder (and the kick in the ass).

 

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