I don’t often celebrate my birthday by discussing the demise of the world, but that’s where the conversation turned during one of my many birthday meals (remember that bit about eating). Most of the table agreed that, given the current political and economic situation, the future looks bleak. Those factors alone, however, do not determine our fate.
A quick scan of K-12 history books, which record largely political and economic affairs, might lead one to wonder how the human race has survived this long. I think we’re still around because the way we treat each other on the small, daily scale makes as much of a difference as those forces we generally consider global. (One political scientist’s research on disaster survival supports this idea.)
Of course politics profoundly shape people’s lives. I just finished reading Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, his autobiography of growing up in Alexandra, South Africa, under apartheid. Arguing that sharing a meal together would undo what he and others suffered under those laws is ludicrous, but by the same token, no political or economic shift allowed him to survive. His mother’s dedication to his education and an American tennis player’s friendship and follow-through brought him to the U.S. well before the end of apartheid.
How does the removal of one young man from an oppressive regime contribute to the end of that regime? I don’t know, but perhaps one person spared from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual starvation imposed by that system is one more person imagining something better. Perhaps that person tips a balance we can’t measure.
When Mathabane left South Africa, he could picture a world without apartheid, but he probably couldn’t describe how that change would happen. In the middle of the Cold War, who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? Transformation happens regardless of our ability or inability to foresee its exact nature.
None of the people at lunch that day live as if they believe their choices and kindness don’t matter. One offers gracious and impeccable hospitality; one supports and enjoys an unusually close-knit family; one radiates enthusiasm and joy wherever she goes; they all provide compassionate leadership at work. They don’t believe these actions will save the world, but maybe their caring, and that of others like them, is as powerful as a failing economy and a divisive political situation.
I believe the communities we create on a daily basis and the generosity and good humor we offer one another create possibilities. William Stafford captures this idea in his poem “Yes,” a more eloquent closing than I could hope to write.
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,