Our duty to society

Is it really that hard to help others? Image found on Association for Psychological Science.

At Thanksgiving, I have the tendency to think about things like the greater good. Though I’m a realist, I still have a streak of optimism, and I choose to look for the best in people. I haven’t seen enough of that “best” over the past few years, but I have hope it’s still out there, and that people still care about their fellow humans.

Watching “The Crown” last week, I got a dose of that with my royal fix, and just in time for the holiday. (Remember, it’s a drama, so the history is often screen-written with a eye toward keeping viewers on the edge of their seats, and the “Fagan” episode is no different. The Wall Street Journal has a nice look at the differences in some of the key events and actual history here.)

Michael Fagan has been in and out of trouble for much of his life. Image found on Town and Country.

In 1982, Michael Fagan, an unemployed tradesman, broke in to Buckingham Palace twice, the second time making it into Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom. While a lot of artistic license was used in “Fagan,” I was struck by a conversation between the queen, played by Olivia Colman, and Margaret Thatcher, played by Gillian Anderson. (In the show, Fagan spoke to the queen at length about Thatcher policies that had resulted in his unemployment; in real life, though, Fagan said their conversation was brief and didn’t involve Thatcher at all.)

After Thatcher apologized to the queen for the security lapse that allowed Fagan to make his way into the palace, the queen pointed out that the economic measures Thatcher had implemented likely had some responsibility for Fagan’s plight.

“If people like Mr. Fagan are struggling, do we not have a collective duty to help them? What of our moral economy?” asked the queen.

If it weren’t for people helping others, many might not have made it through the Great Depression. Image found on Wikimedia Commons.

Thatcher’s response might make some feel better, though not me: “If we are to turn this country around, we really must abandon outdated and misguided notions of collective duty. There are individual men and women and there are families. Self-interested people who are trying to better themselves. That is the engine that fires a nation. My father didn’t have the state to rely on should his business fail. It was the risk of ruin and his duty to his family that drove him to succeed.”

The queen’s response: “Perhaps not everyone is as remarkable as your father.”

While the conversation makes no pretense of being what what was actually said in that incident, it seems to capture the image many people have in their minds when it comes to Thatcher and the notion of charity (who can forget that socialism quote?). But since when is caring about others outdated and misguided?

When I say it revolves around me, I mean it. Well, not me; I’m not a narcissist. Image found on workpuzzle.com.

If everyone is in it for themselves, we have a bit of a problem, not the least of which is forgetting that there are more people in the world than one’s personal circle. Not everyone has the same advantages, and not everyone is in the same situation. One person may go through life having pretty much everything handed to him, with little left to chance. Others may struggle all their lives and not really get very far. Still others will work hard all their lives to attain high rank, only to be overlooked in the end for someone with the “right” advantages.

Most of the people I know are advocates of equality of opportunity (not outcome; seriously, not everyone deserves a trophy). A Black woman should have the same opportunities as a white man with the same education, just as a woman and man with the same qualifications and work put in should be given the same salary for the same position, but that’s not how it is, unfortunately.

Katherine Johnson, played in “Hidden Figures” by Taraji P. Henson, had to fight doubly hard for her pioneering work at NASA and its predecessor. Image found on MarketWatch.

Here, you may do everything right, but where you live, work or worship, your ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, political affiliation and more may have more to do with whether you get a job or a promotion than your actual qualifications. (I still remember being passed over for a job a couple of decades back for a less qualified male former classmate, then seeing the promo spot I wrote as part of the job interview used as an in-house ad. Grrr.)

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We should be thankful for what we have, and mindful that others aren’t as lucky. This is what we should remember, not just at Thanksgiving, but all year long.

The idea of collective duty reminds me of when I was a kid, and our community would pitch in whenever a member experienced tragedy. We’ve forgotten too much of that kindness, and it weakens us as a society.

Volunteer Gina Lowe helps a family move belongings from a home that was destroyed by a tornado in April 2014 in Vilonia, Ark. Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Without collective duty, we might not have police, fire stations, roads and schools; if left to the free market, those things we take for granted that we pay for with our taxes might be unattainable for many of us. They’re not socialism, but are vital parts of our infrastructure that we all contribute toward.

Capitalism can take care of a lot, but it can’t take the place of community. It can provide a market for various things to serve a community, but it is the community itself that provides the humanity necessary for us to thrive. Money can buy items of comfort, but it can’t provide actual comfort. That’s why people, not the state or capitalism, are the most important element of society, and we must care for them if we are to have any claim to being moral humans.

Though we won’t be able to do the usual Thanksgiving with family and friends (or at least we shouldn’t, but reports from airlines don’t give me hope for common sense), we can reach out to them and to those people who might be alone for the holiday, even if it’s just a phone call or text. We can make extra food and deliver it (using appropriate precautions) to those who might not be able to have a nice holiday otherwise. We can check in on those people who might be forgotten and make sure they know they’re valued.

Food banks have seen a large increase in need since the pandemic began. Image found on State College, PA.

We can remember that we aren’t the only people in existence and that our actions can have wider consequences. If we’re out in public, we can wear masks to protect ourselves and those with whom we come in contact because we or they may be sick and not know it. Covid cases and deaths have grown exponentially because unless you’re a total hermit living in an unreachable cave somewhere, you’ll be in contact with at least one person, and thus, every person that person had contact with. You shouldn’t live in fear, but you also shouldn’t forsake common sense and ignore safety guidelines, especially for partisan concerns. Covid doesn’t care who you voted for; the fact that wearing a mask or taking the simplest of precautions became a political litmus test should frighten you.

Above all, we can and should remember that neither giving nor receiving should be demonized. We all need help sometimes, and when we get it, we give thanks.

What they said. GIF found on Simon’s Cat.