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There is no ‘them’ when we’re all in this together

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Exhibit 1: Trevor Berkan was the kind of person people around Southey, Sask., described as always putting others first. He died of an aortic dissection at the tragically young age of 41 in September, leaving much of the family farm’s crop unharvested.

Neighbours immediately designated a Saturday to finish the harvest and without anyone formally calling for help, 50 people and 17 combines showed up — more help than could be used, at a time when everyone also needed to get their own crops in.

Associate Editor Nancy Payne.

Exhibit 2: World Series, 2019, Game 4, between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros. During the sixth inning, raucous Nationals Park fell silent for a full minute as every single player, member of the coaching staff, journalist and fan in the facility held up one, two, even three cards with the words “I stand up for” and a line bearing the name of someone who is fighting cancer, or helping those who are, or who has died from the disease. Nearly 45,000 people were united by grief and hope, the cameras silently registering the common humanity of everyone in the ballpark.

With division and discord so easy to find, it’s more important than ever to remember that we’re all in this together. It doesn’t matter how you define “this” — this life, this treaty, this workplace, this community, this family, this country, this school, this climate, this world, this society, this time, this place. Whichever “this” or multiple “this-es” you’re talking about, you’re not alone.

The alternative is as familiar as it is ugly: to give in to the forces of “us vs. them.” When we do, we quickly slap on the labels: “dropout,” “drug user,” “dyke.” Or maybe it takes a few moments of conversation for us to decide on “climate denier,” “social justice warrior,” or simply “moron,” and then close our minds.

That dismissal is a choice — one we can only make when we see others as less-than. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock appeals to his non-Jewish listeners in one of Shakespeare’s most moving speeches: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” If you’ve ever doubted Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern world, for “Jew,” just substitute “immigrant,” “schizophrenic” or, yes, “dropout,” “drug user” or “dyke.”

At this time of year, there’s no shortage of twinkly sentiments about making the spirit of Christmas last all year long. The question is, do we actually mean them?

If so, we can start by recognizing that life is terribly hard at times, for everyone. That we are all flawed and inconsistent, and that other people deserve compassion and another chance just as much as we do. That we can never know what’s going on in someone else’s head or what kind of day they’re having, and that we never know the whole story.

Because when we can think of each other, even the people who annoy us, as also having aspirations and disappointments and love and loss and good days and bad days, we can’t help but realize all that we have in common. That in turn reminds us that we all laugh when we’re tickled and bleed when we’re pricked, and that no one should have to suffer. Our community thrives when we stop deciding who is deserving and who isn’t, and instead choose to make life better for all.

We know deep down that the public good is what’s good for the public — all of it. Which is why no one asks how you voted when you take your kid to swimming lessons, or determines your opinion on pipelines before you can use our roads or trails. The firefighters come to your house when you need them whether you’re straight or gay or trans or of no gender. From parks and libraries to hospitals and schools, we all benefit when we remember that we’re all in this together.

U2. Photo: Remy [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]
My husband and I lived in eastern Ontario during the 1998 ice storm, which knocked out our power for 13 long days. In the face of the crisis, all the distinctions just disappeared, as they always do. Those with power opened their homes; those who were without it gathered in the curling club to cook for each other and for the hydro crews. Those with generators and firewood shared them. No questions asked. No “them.” Just “us.”

The Irish rock group U2, whose driving guitars and drums and powerful lyrics made them so important to many in my Generation X cohort are now widely considered — ahem — “mom rock.” (Which makes me wonder why it is that attaching “mom” to something as in “soccer mom” makes it worthy of ridicule, but that’s another column.) Their song “Invisible” ends with these simple, haunting lyrics: “There is no them. There’s only us. There’s only you. There’s only me. There is no them.”

It’s not a Christmas carol, but if we let it, it could change us and our shared community forever.

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1 Comment

  1. Nancy Payne’s sentiment is worthy and one we can all agree on but the how of making life better for all is where the common good of shared community can break down.

    I disagree that we need to substitute any label for “Jew” in today’s world to bring home the impact of stereotyping. Anti-semitism is on the rise in Canada.

    I am Christian (what most would call a “bad Christian” because I belong to no church) but I was accosted at my home as I left for work, one morning, by a stranger, a man I saw standing across the road as I left my home, who crossed the road and, as I reached the sidewalk, spat on my mouth, sneered at me, “Filthy Jew” then ran away. It was very shocking and I thought it must be a case of mistaken identity until it happened again about a year later in another city. I then concluded it was intentional and the label “Jew” was being used as a pejorative to mark me as someone to be demonized, hated and shunned for expressing ideas that aroused ire in someone who did not have the courage to disagree with me to my face.

    It is worth pursuing, this idea of Nancy’s, to seek common ground with our enemies by standing with the targets of not only our enemies but also too often our friends and families. How many will stand with an individual who is targeted, maligned and shunned by a mob in the community to which we belong for expressing ideas that do not conform? Who will risk the smear sticking to them if they express solidarity with their community’s pariahs?

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