"I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine." ~Kurt Vonnegut
Imagine a fire engine showing up as your house is burning with your pets inside and the firefighters standing by to make sure your fire doesn't affect your neighbor's home. It is as impossible to imagine as it is true. Fire protection is no longer an emergency service that everyone in the community shares, but has become a service for fee. And in many places in the country, if you don't pay the fee, they won't save your house.
The dilemma of standing by and refusing to help someone who is suffering is a much bigger conversation than the degeneration of community services to fee-based arrangements. Of course, the homeowner offered to pay the fee or double or triple the fee, but the firefighters refused. The rationale being, if they accepted payment at the time of need, no one would pay. This conversation was going on while four family pets were dying.
What is left to us when we refuse to help each other? Norman Lear wrote, "It seems to me that any full grown, mature adult would have a desire to be responsible, to help where he can in a world that needs so very much, that threatens us so very much." What happens inside of us when we turn our backs on our capacity to reach out and help? What happens to the fragile bonds that allow us to all live together when you stand bereft witnessing others with their back to you? It seems to me it is the most tragic and terrifying of life situations to be at once surrounded and abandoned.
I know many people often close down to helping because the need feels so great that the idea of opening up to the great need in the world feels like it will swallow you whole. I know I have felt this too, the despair of not knowing where to begin and the easy translation to believing that my little contribution wouldn't matter anyway. This belief is more a defense than a reflection of the truth. Every effort matters, even the smallest of gestures makes a difference when someone's world is coming apart.
As I try to imagine the desperate sadness of the family watching their home burn to the ground, I flashed on a story I saw in a movie once where the whole community came running to save a neighbor's barn each with a bucket in hand, forming a line a mile long from the river to the barn, passing the buckets from hand to hand. Putting out fires in each other's lives is how we weave the threads of community and how we grow to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
We all deserve help when we need it. Our capacity to do what we can is one true measure of our humanity.