In a classroom long ago, I remember talking about the collective identity the Hebrew people understood. The concept of the individual, especially as we currently understand it, simply didn’t exist. To the best of my recollection (and my friends with far more knowledge in this area can correct me if I am wrong) the word ‘individual’ is never used throughout the Old Testament, its earliest usage being recorded in the 15th century. While naturally, they would have seen different persons, they didn’t see their fate as being distinct and separate from one another. The good of one benefited the whole and vice versa. As this early civilization struggled through an arguably difficult life, the overarching understanding was that they were in this together.
In an age where we look at problems, disasters, and small changeable things with our hands raised and an ‘I didn’t do it so it isn’t my fault’ attitude, I wonder if there is something to be learned from the Hebrew worldview. What would happen if collectively, we understood that what is good for you, is also good for me? That when a person thrives, so does the society in which they are living? That perhaps what we typically call ‘charity’, the giving of someone who has more to someone who has less, isn’t as altruistic as we originally conceived, but instead, serves the larger good and therefore me as well?
While practically this could amount to having less drug addicts, rapists, arsonists etc. on the streets, what it also means is that these people are no longer segregated, but begin to find a community of support, rather than that of charity. It also means that society benefits from the gifts and talents that they have (regardless) but have not been using. Society benefits from all of us contributing.
I moved out of suburbia this year and into Toronto. A city of over 2.5 million people isn’t that large when compared to other major city-centers, but it is the largest place I have ever lived. The city itself is a place that you can not help but encounter people from every different culture, ethnicity, socio-economic bracket, educational background and faith. For me, it is the first time I have lived in such a diverse place. And for me, it has inadvertently done two things. One, I discovered that I am far more biased than I thought I was. I still catch myself looking at people and thinking that I know where they have been, their hardships and then judging them for what I deem are poor life choices, ones that have landed them sitting beside me in a street car, having not bathed in weeks and swearing at the top of their lungs at someone no one else can see. My initial reaction is that this person is an inconvenience to me, and should get themselves sorted out. I’m not sure that I could be much more selfish, for I have no idea-none whatsoever-about the circumstances that led to this person’s current situation. What I do know is that he was not born wanting this kind of life. What I do know is that they were born with gifts and talents, thoughts and feelings, ones that would benefit others if not positively change others.
The second thing I have learned is to remain humble, because irony is a bitch. In the warmer months, I run every morning (or afternoon after I wake up from working til 3am). On my way down to the Lake, I pass by a soup kitchen. Every morning there are men, women and children lined up for what they hope will be their only meal of the day. Right across the street, perhaps 30 feet away is a new restaurant, one that while only moderately priced, is still rather expensive. As I run, I can often catch the reflection of those waiting for free food in the window of a place that is serving food for a price. I may not be ballin’ out of control, but never have I once had to ask for food. I can not imagine how it would feel to admit-publicly-that I am unable to support myself. Or worse, to bring a child-a person who depends on you to support them-somewhere that demonstrates your inability to care for them as they need it. I am humbled every morning.
The challenge is to get out of myself, my often ridiculous problems and realize that if we aren’t in this together, as a whole society, that means we are in it for ourselves. Which means that in many ways, we will come to see each other as threats rather than comrades. Nothing great ever came from that…