Susan Sontag, American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, and teacher said, “10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.”
As I turned 82 this week, I did the examination of conscience I was taught so many years ago in my Catholic School. Has my life’s direction been toward the merciful or toward the cruel?
I haven’t always had the mature perspective that I currently enjoy. Maslow fully explained my motivations in my early years as the lower level deficiency needs; the physiological, social, safety, love, and esteem needs. And I know that I justified my share of cruelty as being “the way the world works.” We’ve all heard aphoristic sayings like, “good guys finish last.”
But today is different. I’m no longer in a race. I’ve arrived at a time when the only thing that matters is how I live the days I have left. Today, I wonder how to assure myself that I continue to trend toward actions that offer something of value to the world.
There is much darkness in that world. And there is the potential for darkness in each of us. The question is, how can we overcome them both. How can we not allow our potential for darkness to prevail? How can we live mercifully in the darkness around us?
It’s a question of transcendence. Can we go beyond or above the range of physical human experience? Because if we can, we can conquer both darkness. As complex as this task sounds, it is amazingly easy to achieve. Plant seeds that will grow and bloom long after you’re gone. As Nelson Henderson said, “plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” So how do we do that in simple terms?
Be a friend to everyone you meet. Treat them kindly; you just never know the personal battles people are fighting. Invest in those friendships because you make the world a better place when you do. You’ll enhance your own life because the greatest gift we can give to ourselves is to care for others.
Do your work and see others as fellow travelers on this journey together. If we’re going to heal this great nation, we need to reach out to each other in friendship. There are dark forces that require us to be divided to achieve their agendas. Let’s don’t let them win. They play with our lives in their games. Let’s take them back by caring about each other.
Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by a Holocaust survivor, can teach us what we need to know. He made a crucial observation that no matter the circumstances, no one can take away our freedom to choose how we react.
Choose to care about the people around you. This transcendence is within everyone’s reach. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”