If you spend any time looking around your neighborhood or perusing any host of media outlets, it seems our world and cities are overflowing with despair, injustice, and intemperate holiday consumerism.
Police brutality, global climate change, declining biodiversity, rising inequity and injustice are scattered between “lowest prices of the season!” happiness-equals-things advertising. As someone who cares, it can feel like valid and vital issue layers upon valid and vital issue, adding helpings to your plate until the meal before you feels insurmountable and rife with indigestion. As a wee mortal in the shadow of gargantuan global ills, the disempowering sensation of impotence is an understandable response.
And how can we blame anyone for feeling overwhelmed? Or if not overwhelmed, for struggling to find any purposeful outlet for their desire to make a difference?
I’ve fallen into the same pattern, perhaps getting and staying more involved than some, but after looking around and seeing so much that needs addressing, experiencing so much injustice and nonsensical bureaucracy in our social, political, health, educational, and economic systems, I’ve realized that these issues are not a simple stack from which to extricate a particular layer; all of our problems are fundamentally related to one another.
The police officer whose gun is all too at-the-ready in black and poor neighborhoods. The person in a car who lays on the horn behind a cyclist traveling at a speed they deem unacceptable. People walking in a distancing arch around the homeless. The indoctrinated evangelist in front of low-income women’s health centers, screaming of god’s love inbetween slurs and condemnations. The terrorist, the rapist, the animal abuser. They all view the object of their aggression and/or judgment as less-than.
We’ve labeled and identified and therefore ceased to see the life in front of us. Failing to take each experience and thing on their own merit, failing to view “other” as equally valuable and deserving of basic dignity and respect. You can ride your bike past the same stretch of scenery 100 times and every time is a different experience. But after that first ride, are we even looking anymore?
How often do we really SEE each other? See beyond labels and categories we’ve created in an act of abbreviation between recognized characteristics and our limited, individual understanding? How often do we genuinely ENGAGE with one another? So many structures are in place that breed loneliness and isolation and prejudice that basic interaction and physical sensation are anomalies that cause us discomfort. They become things we seek to avoid.
From couch to car to cubicle and back again. Placed into boxes that define us in limiting terms, but which make us significantly easier to target with holiday marketing campaigns. These physical and social barriers, from car-centric transportation to suburban housing to divisions of class and race, lend themselves to a sensation of suffocation, of searching and yearning for something that we cannot define. We live with willful ignorance to avoid uncomfortable personal and societal truths and buy stuff we don’t need to feel connected to something, anything – only to be left alone and unfulfilled when the high of consumption inevitably wanes.
The yearning for connection, belonging, and the sense that we’re genuinely included is a basic human tendency. We all experience it, we all need it to find sustainable happiness, and many roots of our culture place things, gates, and steel-boxes between us and connecting with nature and neighbor. Compassion requires stepping outside of your own circumstances to experience another’s, but when we’re boxed in literally and figuratively, it’s incredibly difficult to see anything beyond our own reflection.
Think about it: what social problems DON’T arise from our lack of empathy? And since this is a uniting feature in the valid and vital issues we face, wouldn’t the cultivation of compassion in ourselves and our policies provide a foundation from which to address everything else?
Our internal structures shape how we treat one another, and our built environment influences interaction. Even something as basic as making eye contact on the street increases our happiness, sense of connection, and sense of value. Moving beyond highways and car-centric transportation can help improve mental health in sound reduction alone while removing walls of asphalt and pollution that segregate and separate communities. Police who regularly patrol a single community on foot might be more likely to see neighbors instead of potential criminals. Eliminating advertising in public spaces provides respite from the demands and detriments of unrelenting mental stimulation.
Cities that cultivate compassion through community-shaped police policy, shared-space focused urban design, prioritized active and public transportation systems, accessible and well-funded education, and other community-centric policy can alleviate the symptoms we see superficially, including crime, police indifference and brutality, and economic decline.
This is the city of the future. This is how we confront the issues that pile upon one another, leaving us feeling inadequate to address them.
Seeing this common thread is especially empowering in our daily lives. Every person you acknowledge, every story of racial indignity you refuse to ignore, every trip you take by bike, every local small business you patronize, is activism. Every seed of connection and love that you plant creates hope for future generations.
So go say hello to someone random, engage friends in discussions about race and injustice, ride your bike or walk for your errands, and keep looking for ways to promote love and compassion.
Someone once said, “we’re all in this together”. That person spoke in clichés, but they also spoke truth.