Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Hope in This World Is Not Optional

Via Fetch me my axe, an extraordinary discussion over at Taking Steps, in which little light discusses the impact of what can sometimes be the smallest acts of decency:

So the final game went something like this: in the stand of woods out back behind the football field, a little wooden platform had been installed about five feet up a pine tree. Everyone took turns climbing up to the platform, one at a time. The one on the platform would face the tree trunk. Ten students would line up in two lines, under the teacher’s direction, facing each other, underneath, their arms outstretched and interlacing. The student on the platform would fall backwards off the platform, be caught by the collective effort of the rest of the class, and be placed safely on the ground.

I was second-to-last to go. I was terrified. I think they knew that. But I decided to take the plunge and try to put faith–if not in my fellow human beings–in the system enforcing their behavior, since everyone else had gotten out okay. I closed my eyes as I fell, but not fast enough to miss seeing, in my peripheral vision, every one of those students, in unison, take a step backward and allow me to fall, some of them laughing.

Except one. One blur of movement: one girl I didn’t really know arresting her backward step and coming back, one pair of hands hitting my back in a futile effort just before I hit the ground, hard.

It was a small injury–some bruises and the wind knocked out of me–but I had a moment, staring at the sky through the treetops, to learn a lesson. There were two immediately available:

1. Given the chance, people will be bastards.

2. No matter how many people unite in cruelty, someone will always try to do the right thing. Even if it isn’t enough, it still matters.

As that one girl asked if I was okay, I decided that that first lesson was not going to make me a better person, and that the second was the one worth learning. That was one of the days I finally got around to joining the human race. It was one of the moments of kindness that taught me that there was something to hope for in this life, something worth sticking around for. It was an opportunity to decide if I would be identified by what was broken, or what was whole; by hate for those who had hurt me, or love for those who refused; by what other people had done to me, or what I believed people could do for each other.

In the discussion that follows, little light elaborates:

If that act of minimal, at-the-time-apparently-ineffectual decency, along with a couple of other tiny things–a “how are you” a year later from another relative stranger, a card from a concerned English teacher–hadn’t happened, nothing good I do in the world today and forever would have been possible. If it weren’t for a collection of tiny decencies amid all the hurt and anger arriving to show me another way was possible, it is extremely likely that there would be nothing here for you to read, because I would not have gotten to high school alive, and the only wild card would have been whether or not I’d done someone else harm in the going. I don’t have illusions about this; I am not a saint, and victimhood does not confer innocence.

You do not, at any moment, have any idea whether or not the two hands reaching out to hold someone else up–even when it looks hopeless or pointless–will be yours. You cannot know that a simple matter of eye contact or genuine concern or refusing to participate in pointless meanness–or the similarly tiny opposites of these things–will mean the difference between life and death for someone. I told the girl in this story, years later, how much her action had meant to me, and she didn’t even remember it.

Our daily, infinitesimal cruelties and compassions matter. If not to us, to someone. Everyone who ever benefits from my being in the world owes an unwitting debt to the people who brought me back from the edge, and in turn, and in turn, in an endless fractal of human connections.

There is always someone resisting wrong and trying to do the right thing. Sometimes they are not there for us–there were many times I could have wished for two hands at my back in support, and found none. Sometimes we have to do the impossible and forgive their absence. Sometimes those hands have to be us, even when it isn’t fair; it’s the only way it will get better. It’s a matter of risk, and of trust, often misplaced, but hope in this world is not optional–it is a matter of basic survival.

I was also struck by the post of the commenter Dead Inside, who asks:

We all have a wide range of experiences. How does that shape and form us?

Is our survival based on mere luck? Or is it some built-in predisposition to see hope where another might not ever see anything hopeful, even in a situation such as was described here. I know, for me personally, I wouldn’t have been comforted by that. I’m sure there were times in my life where someone cared and I just didn’t notice or it just wasn’t enough to overcome the waves and waves of despair and worse.

I’ve often found myself wondering at how much I owe, both to blind luck and to the often inexplicable kindness of strangers – reflecting on the pivotal impact of small and mundane acts, and wondering what it is that sometimes makes us receptive to those dimensions of our environment that reflect hope, rather than despair… The original post and subsequent discussion are quite powerful reflections on these issues – I’d suggest reading them as a whole.

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