It might have come to me today as I was driving a side street in the next town, one block off the Main Street. It’s a narrow residential street with parking on both sides, STOP signs at each block, the kind of street where you don’t get much speed up. Because of the double parking the roadway for two-way traffic is on the tight side, which normally isn’t a problem most hours. But today there was traffic and I was watching the faces of the oncoming drivers as I negotiated the road. I am a cautious driver, and it struck me how in most cases when there was a tight spot the oncoming driver performed two actions simultaneously: increased their speed and avoided eye contact with a distained expression.
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Or maybe it was the woman I saw on my way into the town, a rather well-to-do town with no General Assistance program because “there is no poverty”. She was searching the pubic waste receptacles for empties (there is a bottle redemption law in Maine). Normally I avoid gazing too long at individuals such as this person, but today I did not. I looked at her, really looked at her, trying to understand what my morning might look like setting out in rather unwashed coat to pick through trash. She did not have a desperate look about her, but I could see she was worn. A trace of youth left, if you looked to see it. And then, of course, as is often the case, she sensed my gaze and straightened up with some dignity and moved on.
Or maybe it was the end of the Palm Sunday service as the last refrain of the closing hymn ended and my thoughts returned to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem I visited several decades ago (several lifetimes ago!)…thinking about the blind beggars at the David Gate of the city, how in passing some would touch their outstretched hands with a brief blessing, “Allah”, if not with a small coin. I thought about the honesty in that, where the unfortunate are acknowledged for their humanity even in their desperation, and how in our so-called First World America many of these same individuals are criminalized and refused participation in society, about how convenient and dishonest this becomes.
Or maybe it was in the coffee hour after the worship service. I was talking with a friend, an older man, and I asked him if he knew what “Zeitgeist” was. He did not, so I described it by the phrases such as “the generally felt predominant undercurrent”, or “the general sense of movement” of the society. Wikipedia spells it out more precisely as “the spirit of the age”. I told him what I thought, as the word came to me, just then, was the Zeitgeist of our United States of America: INDIFFERENCE.
We talked a bit about this, and he started to ask how we got here, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, that is what I see, when I look around, in so many ways and forms. It used to be commonly understood to have some concern for others, folks who weren’t as well off, who didn’t have as much. Not so much now. What has become agreed upon is “if you don’t have it, that’s your fault. I have mine and leave me alone.” Showing weakness or even a connection with “the other” is not in fashion at the moment.
I cannot trace the origin of the shift I have experienced in my 50+ years of living. But the way forward - that seems clearer, if not easier. The Zeitgeist of our United States won’t change, it seems to me, until individuals make a conscious decision to live differently. Nothing more, and nothing less, will do.
Let’s move beyond it.
The sooner, the better.