Do we trust that there is enough for everyone of what everyone needs?
By Herbert Rothschild
There’s a tale that goes like this: A person visits hell, where there are tears and gnashing of teeth. Everyone is sitting around a table in the center of which is a bowl of food. But each diner has a long fork strapped to his one free arm, and the fork is too long to get the food to his mouth. Then the person visits heaven, where there is continual rejoicing. The arrangement is the same as the one in hell, but the people are feeding each other.
This tale feels like a parable (“The reign of God is like …”), and it conveys an immediate sense of truth. But the more I reflect on it, the more complex its truth seems.
The most available truth is a traditional Christian one — that an undeviating focus on one’s own ego needs leaves one in solitary misery and, depending on how much power one has, makes life miserable for others. Dante believed in hell as an eternal spiritual condition, but he also depicted it as an everyday reality. One way to view our lives is that we are either in hell or purgatory, either frozen into selfishness or growing toward loving community.
So that’s one lesson we can take from the tale. The scene in heaven suggests another. If we are willing to feed each other from the common bowl, we must act on a double trust. One is that those we feed will feed us in return. The other is that there will be enough for everyone.
The lowest circle of Dante’s hell is the abode of traitors, those who violated the trust placed in them. The precondition of community is trust. Without it, every relationship is fraught with anxiety, and joy is not a possibility.
I would guess that most of us have violated someone’s trust at one time or another. Perhaps we were sexually unfaithful in marriage or betrayed a confidence or let someone else take a portion of blame that belonged to us. Yet, I doubt that we would group ourselves with Judas Iscariot (one of Dante’s three arch traitors), and reasonably so. But what happens to our self-perception as trusting and trustworthy folks if we reflect on that bowl of food?
Do we trust that there is enough for everyone of what everyone needs? And even if we say yes, are our attitudes and actions informed by that trust? Or, alternatively, do we live as if we are in competition for the good things in life, and so we must guard against our rivals?
Inescapably, to some extent we do live at the cost of each other. Another driver may get to that parking place before we do. Not every applicant will be admitted to the prestigious university. Only one contestant can finish in first place. Unfortunately, too many individuals and entire societies generalize from such instances and form their attitudes — their ideology, if you will — accordingly. In such societies — and ours is one — interactions take on the cast of a zero-sum game from the office to the marketplace to the geo-political arena.
The first way to counteract the assumption that life is a matter of winners and losers is to think harder about those instances where that condition seems to obtain. Take college admissions. I attended two of the most prestigious universities in the country. I taught in two far less prestigious ones. If there were students who applied to Yale and Harvard but had to “settle” for Louisiana State University and the University of Houston, I can assure you they weren’t losers. They got excellent educations. That is true for students at hundreds of colleges and universities across this nation.
Or take athletics. For the millions of people who participate in sports, the rewards are large even if they don’t win championships. The rewards come from the sustained effort to make the body function at levels it ordinarily wouldn’t. In team sports they also come from participating in a common effort in which doing one’s best counts, as well as the camaraderie of the locker room.
Unfortunately, when we monetize outcomes — which our society tends to do to its activities — such benefits are obscured.
The second way to counteract the assumption that life is a matter of winners and losers is to realize that the most satisfying goods in life are unlimited. Being “seen” — having one’s presence acknowledged, one’s experiences valued, one’s achievements praised — apart from any consideration of one’s use value may be what we all need most once our basic physical needs are met. Black Lives Matter is not only a demand to end police killings. It is also, and more importantly, a demand at last to be seen by the dominant society.
Contrary to a rights-based conception of justice, the understanding that mutual recognition is fundamental to life-enhancing relationships puts human thriving at the center of the political as well as the social order. Both orders are regarded, not as constraints on the pursuit of individual happiness, but as the facilitators and collective manifestation of our highest aims.
In the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, health care, education, housing and meaningful work are all listed, but this is a desperate and mostly ineffective substitute for the encompassing care that flows from the recognition that we flourish best when we flourish together. When our elected officials tell us that we haven’t enough money to make sure every resident of this country has adequate nutrition, health care, housing and education, we should tell them that the bowl in heaven holds no more than the bowl in hell. It’s the way people around the table relate to each other that determines whether they live in poverty or plenty.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.