The value of people and community

Not long ago I was telling someone about a story I’d heard, in which a person who had never been a parent had become one later in life. “I hope that makes this person more sensitive to the challenges of people who work and have children,” was basically how I concluded the story.

To my surprise, “I don’t like that,” said my conversation partner. “I don’t think people deserve special treatment when they choose to have a child. And I don’t like how when someone has a kid, the rest of the team has to pick up their slack.”

I felt there was something fundamentally wrong with this argument, but it wasn’t until this morning that I pieced together what it was. This argument hinges on the presupposition that work is the most important thing we do as humans, and that our highest loyalty should be to our company. By having a child, therefore, a worker is selfishly choosing to be a burden on the company and his or her fellow employees.

I can’t agree with that. Companies come and go, but the human race continues. Our most important work is preparing the next generation.

Yes, a person’s career is important. Knowledge is definitely important. But I could never value profit over family, or productivity over community. The former are terms that we essentially made up over time in order to compete with each other, and they have little to do with building a better human race–at least not if they come at the cost of human relationships. Competition may drive us to new heights of scientific achievement, of art, but without the latter components in place–family and community–we have no backbone on which to build these things, no lens through which to evaluate whether or not we should. Only through relationships with other humans can we give meaning to knowledge work. Only through sharing knowledge and fostering communication and empathy can we empower ourselves and our descendants to take the long view, to make choices not simply for our own personal gain but for the good of humanity.

A true human relationship is more difficult than simple business networking. It’s being there during bad times. It’s learning to forgive and forget. It’s trying to understand points of view markedly different from one’s own. It’s hard. The natural instinct might be to run away, from a spouse, from a child, from a friend, and bury oneself in a career. Or it might be that a person is so deep in the trenches of his or her own relationship crises that another person’s problems might not be visible. Whatever the reason, many people choose to be oblivious to others’ pain, to expect people to handle “their own problems”.

This is wrong. In the realm of human relationships, there should be no “them”. If there is a person in front of you who is suffering, and you do nothing, you are not “right”. You are part of the systematic breakdown of community.

We are a global society now. We have ways of learning more about virtually any topic, any culture, any history. But as we’ve gone global, rather than expanding our minds and opening our eyes, we’ve instead drawn ourselves further and further inward, walling others out, expecting everyone to take care of themselves. If they can’t, well, they just made the wrong choices. Them’s the breaks. Luck of the draw. Oh well. Right? This approach is grossly negligent and it’s teaching our children, the future of humanity, to be selfish and cruel. Imagine what a few generations of eat-or-be-eaten will do to our world. You don’t even have to work hard to imagine it; it’s happened plenty of times in our history. Only this time it will happen on a global scale. Do you think the human race will survive?

If someone undertakes the most important human work–raising a child–we should all be eager to help. Rather than sitting around shaking our heads at the next generation, we could be doing something. Fighting for higher pay for families. Working to get decent maternity and paternity leave for parents. Allowing and encouraging breastfeeding in the workplace and in public. Guaranteeing equal childcare support and opportunities regardless of income. Instead we seem to be trying to shame parents into keeping their kids at home in front of the TV, like it’s too inconvenient for us to be around them. We ignore problems that “don’t affect us”, like school lunches and childhood obesity and education. And that’s not right. It all affects us. Even if we don’t have kids ourselves, we must respect what it means to have them. And if we’re so worried about where the world is going, we should be as involved as possible in helping the next generation prepare.

I simply can’t see family, community, relationships, the human race as a “hassle”. Yes, there is a lot of hatred out there, especially if that’s all you’re looking for. But there’s so much beauty, too. Let’s get out there and nurture that beauty wherever we find it. Let’s lift each other up. Let’s talk. Let’s learn. Let’s strive to be better. And let’s prepare our global community for the challenges ahead.