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 and injustice.
One issue catches your attention, say the global climate crisis, so you inform yourself and maybe even get involved with local groups united in action. From there, you meet someone who tells you about the inadequacy of our current healthcare system, so you accept their invitation to a universal care advocacy group. From there you meet someone who rides their bike just about everywhere, since preventable disease and global warming are best addressed atop two-wheels. Next thing you know you’re living the car-free life and attending hearings on upcoming infrastructure projects, where you learn more about the inadequacy of services for the homeless and injustice of police brutality.
This cycle continues, valid and vital issue upon valid and vital issue, adding helpings to your plate until the meal before you feels insurmountable and rife with indigestion. Insignificance is a sensation that can be incredibly disempowering.
And so you continue to follow news through clips and headlines and more engrossed friends’ Facebook posts and tweets about rallies and die-ins, but in general, you check out.
“Someone should do something about all of this.”
And with that sentiment, you separate yourself from involvement in a solution and sentence our society, our world, and our communities to inevitable perpetuation of systems of oppression.
But 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 while actively avoiding eye contact. The indoctrinated evangelist in front of low-income women’s health centers, screaming of god’s love in-between slurs and condemnations. The murderer, 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 marketing campaigns. These physical and social barriers, from cars 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 shit 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 systemic classism and racism, the suburbs, car-centric transportation, and culture of consumption all place things, gates, and steel-boxes between us and connecting with nature and neighbor. Compassion involves 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 promoting societal structures that increase our chances to cultivate compassion ultimately help us address everything else? A foundation from which to shape informed, inclusive, and equitable city policy, infrastructure, and individual choice?
Our internal structures shape how we treat one another, and our built environment influences interaction. In equitably accessible places where we are exposed – dense urban cores, public green space, commuting by bicycle or public transit – we are suddenly interacting through shared experience and space. 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.
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 empowers us 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 asinine trinket you forgo is a contribution.
So go say hello to someone random, engage friends in discussions about race and injustice, ride your bike outside of spandex-laden racing and weekend jaunts, 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.