Keeping One Another
I voted today. I spent forty-five minutes in an advance polling line to plunk my little x beside the candidate that I thought might do the best job of representing our little corner of the country in Ottawa. Or, at the very least, the one that I thought might do the least damage.
I harbour few romantic illusions about what my little vote might accomplish or of the political process in general. My views on politics could probably be described as bordering on the cynical. Especially during election campaigns, where politicians spend obscene amounts of taxpayers’ money traveling across the country, telling people like me what they think we want to hear in order to obtain the power to do pretty much whatever they want. This entire election campaign has struck me as a rather odious exercise in watching adult human beings squawk and bleat at and over top of each other about how their opponents are the embodiment of pure evil and menace in the world and how they alone are capable of ushering in the Canada that we’ve always dreamed about. There is a quote, sometimes attributed (apocryphally, no doubt) to Mark Twain: “Don’t vote, it just encourages them.” These often seem like wiser words than any of the ones that I’ve heard emerging from the mouths of politicians over this interminably long election campaign.
But I voted. It is a privilege that ought not to be sneered at, given the political and social realities faced by so many in our world. And while I was standing in line, I witnessed a neat moment. I was nearly at the registration table when an elderly Japanese couple shuffled in to the room and took their place in the chairs provided beside the line where the rest of us were standing. Both had bent backs, both moved slowly, tremulously, laboriously. Nevertheless, they had smiles on their faces and seemed content to wait there until their turn came. But the couple in front of me graciously insisted that these older folks move to the front of the queue. And I watched these two dear old people smile in gratitude, make their way to the table, answer the appropriate questions, and then proceed, together, to the voting booth. A few minutes later, they emerged, and trudged over to the ballot box where their shaking hands placed two slips of paper in the box. I was far from the only person in the (long) lineup who had a smile on their face as we watched them make their way to the exit.
I thought about this elderly couple as I waited the few remaining moments to cast my own ballot. I wondered what they had seen in their nine decades on this planet. Were they part of the Japanese community who, like my wife’s family, were shipped by the Canadian government from British Columbia to Alberta during World War 2 because they were thought to be spies? Were they the ones who had been taken from established and prosperous lives in Vancouver and forced to sweat in sugar beet fields and endure the indignity and deprivation of sleeping in granaries during frigid Alberta winters? Had they at one time been mistreated by the very nation whose future they were now helping to shape?
And what did they hope for, as they slipped those two pieces of paper in the ballot box? Would they live long enough to see any of the changes they might be longing for or for the preservation of things that they already valued? Election campaigns are all about the future, after all. How does one look at the endless election promises, at the projections of what is coming two, four, ten years from now, when one’s own horizons are quite likely short? Why bother with these lineups and little pieces of paper in boxes, why bother with these politicians whose endless words will undoubtedly fail to deliver the futures they promise, when you might not even be around to see any of it materialize?
I think the only answer can be that these two dear folks were voting for the futures of others. They were voting for their kids, their grandkids, their great-grandkids, their neighbours, and their neighbours’ kids, and their kids… They were voting for those they would never meet. They were contributing to the fabric of a social reality that predated them and would obviously stretch far beyond their remaining years. They understood, on some level, at least, that they were part of a broader community to which they had obligations. They understood, on some level at least, that as human beings we have a responsibility for one another that goes beyond crude self-interest. That we have a duty to look after each other.
For whatever reason, witnessing this old couple voting for a future that would stretch beyond them struck me as an inspirationally selfless act—a decision to accept responsibility for people and generations yet to come. Cain’s impudent question to God after murdering his brother Abel from Genesis 4:9—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—has echoed down through the ages as an indictment of the human penchant for fleeing responsibility for those around us. The implicit divine answer is, “Yes, you are. Of course you are. You are all part of the same human community. You are responsible for each other.”
We could use this reminder. It’s Thanksgiving here in Canada, and it’s important to give thanks for the good things in our lives. But gratitude can become myopic, forgetting that the very things that we give thanks for are the things that others lack. Freedom. Security. Peace. Plenty. Health. Family. It’s too easy for our gratitude to settle into a kind of complacent neglect of the brothers (and sisters) that we are supposed to be keeping. It’s too easy to ignore some of the deep incongruities between the ideals we profess and the unjust realities we not only tolerate but also contribute to daily.
(I am not exempting myself here in any way. As I write these words I am watching—and therefore adding my tacit support to—the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers playoff game on TV, this curious spectacle where we have grown men who each make as much money to play one (!) kids’ game as it would take to sponsor a family of six refugees to escape the clutches of war and poverty and care for them for a year. Sometimes it seems to me that there is a deep sickness at the heart of our culture, at the core of what we value and prioritize and why…)
At any rate, on this Thanksgiving Monday I’m thankful for the lesson learned from my elders at the voting station today. I am thankful for the simple reminder that we are responsible for each other, in large ways and in small ways. Cynicism is easy. Complacency is easy. Selfishness is easy. Responsibility is much harder, as is the genuine gratitude that can nourish it and protect it from degenerating into grim, lifeless duty. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all that I enjoy, but also for opportunities to relearn this most basic of life’s lessons: We are our brother’s keepers, and we are meant to keep one another well.