What Do You Put First?
The late André Malraux, writer, diplomat, and sometime French Minister of Culture, once said something like, “All novelists are basically boring: They keep writing the same novel over and over in an attempt to get it right.” That idea can pertain to non-fiction writers, or anyway me, as well. Those of you who regularly read my blogs may remember a recent one titled “How Big Is Your We?” There I argued that the bigger, more inclusive your self is, the more likely you are to include a wider diversity of others as part of your We, your family. St. Francis of Assisi is a poster child for someone with a super-large We. For him even non-humans like Sister Moon and Brother Fox were part of his. In this regard, indigenous Americans who practice the Pipe Ceremony will say “All My Relations” when they pass the pipe to the next person in the circle. Meant here is much more than the nuclear or even extended family. Of course, tribal wars of old indicate that this formula may have been as much an ideal as a universal reality, similar to when we Americans refer to our country as the Land of the Free. . . . Some of us are freer than others, even 160 years after the Civil War.
For generations there has been an America First Movement, so we can’t blame it on the current ultra-nationalism fracturing our country. Nation-based patriotism has been around for eons. The idea here as espoused by the American hero Charles Lindbergh among others is that our loyalty should be first, last, and always to our country. Yet we need only look at the Germany of the Third Reich, 1933-45, to see where this kind of loyalty can lead. By contrast, I think of Janacek’s play The Good Soldier Schweik. In it two low-ranked soldiers on opposite sides in World War I encounter one another—both are alone—in a forest at night. One soldier calls out, “Who goes there?” The other, Schweik, who is what we Jews refer to as a nebisch, a good-natured fool, responds in a half-whining voice, “A human being!” Now that’s just the point, is it not? We are all equally human beings and as such have an innate right to be respected and, if needed, helped, certainly not to be maimed or killed in the name of the nation-state.
When as a college student I was a counselor at a summer camp for boys in northern Wisconsin, I remember the camp director teaching us at meals the saying “I am third—first God, then my neighbor, then me.” And this was a Jewish, not a Christian, camp! We’re not talking either/or here but both/and. For reasons of viability, members of the helping professions who are always at risk of burn-out from their work are taught to practice self-care. This is not a matter of ego gratification but of maintaining the capacity to help others. Balance seems a key principle of good living. Many of us, to be sure, are partial Franciscans when it comes to the love we show our household pets. Now, with an invasive war raging in Ukraine and climate change on a glide path to making the Earth uninhabitable, isn’t it time to put all life first?
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