Thursday, April 8, 2010

When Are We Responsible for Each Other?

We're reading Elie Wiesel's Night in my pre- freshman composition course right now. I teach the book within a unit on prejudice and racism because it accomplishes a couple of things: we're required to do a text-based writing on a work of nonfiction, and the book itself is a powerful firsthand account of the extremes to which prejudice can go. Though the Holocaust really didn't happen all that long ago from the sweeping view of history (what? just 60 years?), many of its lessons are falling by the wayside already. There are Holocaust deniers, and plenty of hate groups exist right here in the good ole U.S. of A. who embrace the rhetoric of the Nazi Party. We often view American History X and connect that film to what's happening on the streets right now--for instance, there's an article in today's Chronicle about anti-Semitic graffiti and similar incidents taking place at UC Davis.

The question always becomes, when do we speak up? When do we intervene? Or when do we keep out of it? When is it rightly not our business? When is claiming "it's not my business" an excuse for not acting when we should? When is saying "it is my business" an excuse for butting in when we shouldn't?

This one's a problem for me, because I tend to be one of those persons who takes on way more responsibility for things than I should. (Maybe it's one of the many reasons I drank--to assuage my guilty conscience.) When I was in college, I was inspired by slogans such as "To do nothing is to be a part of the problem." One of my favorite quotations is "All that's required for evil to thrive is for men of good will to look the other way." I always feel morally required to shoulder burdens--the girl with the weight of the world in her hands. It can be overwhelming.

I know, poor me. But that isn't what this post is about. I'm wondering lately if I've even needed to feel guilty all those times when I haven't spoken up. I wonder if some of us sometimes don't do damage to ourselves, and hence do no good for anybody, when we take on responsibilities that don't belong to us.

I'm thinking of a friend I know who has problems with alcohol. To date I haven't said anything to him because I don't know him very well, and he hasn't asked me for my help. I think of how I used to despise the people in recovery who used to pass judgment on, it seemed, everybody I knew (including me) who drank. They reminded me of intolerant ex-smokers, who wave their hands frantically around their faces if someone lights up around them and launch into lectures on the dangers of secondhand smoke. I hated having to go out to dinner with a crowd of them, because they expected you to not drink lest your cocktail sway them from their own resolve. Heck, they were a drag. I don't want to be a party pooper.

But then I watch Intervention on A&E and see groups of family members and friends take the bull by the horns and confront their addict with their problem. They intervene. They speak up. They do so even when they know the alcoholic or drug abuser will feel humiliated, horrified, and angry. They refuse to look the other way anymore.

What to do, what to do? What's the right thing to do?

Torn, I approached my sponsor, fully expecting her to say, "Hell yeah, say something!"

She took me completely by surprise by saying, "It's not your business."

So we had to tease all of it out. Distinctions: what are my motives? Rescuing him? That's not a good motive. I can't expect to save him from himself. He has to reach his own bottom and ask for help himself. But the people in Intervention don't. Well, they're family and friends directly impacted by the addict's behavior. Their alcoholic is bankrupting them, or interfering with family life at home, or abusing them when drunk and belligerent.

As with most situations, then, the answer is "it depends." Am I enabling an alcoholic by not intervening? No, but I am, of course, if I keep buying him drinks when he runs out of money.

So whether you speak out is a matter of motivation, personal involvement, how much knowledge you have of the situation, and degree. If it's a political issue--say someone's rights are being broken--then it is my business to speak up. You remove one person's rights, then next it's someone else's rights, and finally they'll be your rights removed. It affects me; it affects us all. If it's a personal issue, on the other hand, then maybe not. If someone else's problem doesn't impact me in some way, it's not my business (or "Nunya!" as my friend Heather would say). You stay out of it--unless you're asked for help, in which case you may gladly chip in and do what you can. And always, always, examine your own motives for sticking your nose where it perhaps doesn't belong. Silence can be golden.

I can live with that. And I can stop bearing the weight of the world in my hands. Do what I can when it's called for, but do no more. I can live with that.

And boy, does that feel better.

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