Before the holidays I proposed to my family that we all reflect upon the Ben Lee song “we’re all in this together.” You can read the full prompt here from a past post.
We are all back from Hawaii and had some absolutely wonderful reflections and discussion as a result of this. I am really glad with how this thought experiment went, and am going to be sharing the other reflections on this page as well. I thought I’d start with my own reflection that I read on our 2nd night in Hawaii. And again, I encourage anyone who might be interested to submit their own! I am considering making a page for just these types of reflections, and I would love to get answers from a variety of people.
Without any further ado, here is my reflection:
In proposing this idea to everyone, I envisioned that we would share memories or images that we’ve experienced that speak to the nature of this song. Of course you all are welcome to do what you want, but with that in mind, I’d like to start with a simple encounter.
When I was in Kenya, we would make almost daily trips from the Daraja campus to the town of Nanyuki. It is about a 25km ride, and we always did it in style and luxury in one of Daraja’s trucks. It was very common to see along that road countless people walking back and forth from the town of Nanyuki to one of the several little outpost villages along the road. On one day, when the rain clouds were stubborn and threatening, I drove into town with Gray and Peter Wathitu. Only about 5 minutes out of Daraja’s gate we passed an old man walking a bicycle. Stacked up high on the back of the bike and strapped securely into place were bundles of charcoal branches. Wathitu explained to Grey and I that this was common. The extremely poor often resorted to illegally sneaking onto ranches and cutting branches off trees to go and slowly burn them in another field and turn them into charcoal, to be sold on the market for pennies to other poor Kenyans who cannot afford kerosene or electricity for their homes. We zipped past him without much afterthought–just another of thousands of people who were desperately scraping together a living in this developing country.
We spent about an hour in Nanyuki, quickly forgetting about this nameless old man, taking care of various errands. We jumped back in the car to head back to campus, and as we got on the road the rain started coming down, and at times it was pretty hard. About halfway home, after completely forgetting about him, we saw the same old man continuing his slow march into town to sell his charcoal. As we slowed down to check on him, Wathitu, one of the greatest people I’ve met in my life, leaned back to Grey and I and simply said “Don’t ever forget this man.”
Afterwards he explained, as he had done on other occasions on our trip. Wathitu had worked with Americans before, and knew that a common tendency for them was to be shocked at what they saw in Kenya but then quickly forget everything once they returned to their lives of luxury in the United States. Wathitu himself, who had lived in one of Nairobi’s slums for a year, was prone to such blissful forgetfulness in his new, more stable life. But as we slowly drove by the old man and asked if he needed help, Wathitu wanted us to imprint his image in our minds so that try as we might, we would not forget him.
And I most certainly have not forgotten him. He stands as my inspiration for reflecting upon the meaning of this song. This old man is no less human or no more human than any of us. He was created by the same Creator as all of us, in the same likeness, and with the same potential for good, bad, joy, and suffering. And although, as the deceased David Foster Wallace put it in his memorable commencement address at Kenyon College, the default human setting is to slip into self-centered apathy, I have tried to fight that apathy with memories of this old man.
We as a human race can only succeed as far as we bring our most dependent people. If we allow ourselves to live on a world where people kill each other, people starve and die of curable diseases, and old men have to walk bikes stacked with illegal charcoal 25km just to survive, then we are all suffering. We all are stuck in the rain, plowing a weighed-down bike through the sloshy mud.
However, I don’t think that is the point that Ben Lee emphasizes in his optimistic song, and I don’t think it entirely sums up what Wathitu was going for when he told us to remember the old man. We must remember that all of us are responsible for all of us, that in times of global crisis we all need to pick up an oar and start rowing toward a solution together. That’s a lesson that cannot be ignored. A great historical example that proves this comes from Herbert Hoover’s presidency. In 1930, in response to the stock market crash of 1929, Hoover signed into law the Hawley-Smoot tariff, which was the single largest tariff on imported goods in american history. The purpose was to protect American manufacturers from cheaper international goods, but the actual affect was to bring international trade to a screeching halt, and to turn the American economic slump into a global depression. So much for sticking your head in the sand in times of crisis.
But back to the optimistic note of togetherness. I haven’t finished the story about the old man yet. When we slowed down to see if he was alright, he greeted our questions of concern with a huge smile, telling us not to worry and that he was fine. Standing there drenched in the rain, this old man had a face of joy and gratitude. That I think is the silver lining on this cloud that we need to remember. All of us humans have so much in common. On Radiolab they pointed that if you were to read two humans’ genetic codes simultaneously at a rate of one protein per second, it would take over 17 minutes to come across a difference! Even on the genetic level, we all have a similar capacity to suffer, and we should all feel responsible for each other’s suffering. But much more beautifully, we all have the same capacity for joy and happiness. All of us can smile and laugh and experience peace, despite our circumstances. In our overly-comfortable materialistic lives, we all can dwell upon petty and trivial offenses or discomforts. If this this old man can smile and laugh through a rainstorm, and hungry kids can giggle and play in the sewage of the slum of Kibera, then all of us can find happiness. We’re all in this together. We suffer together, and we smile together, and we can inspire each other through our actions and attitudes. To repeat myself, we are all created by the same Creator with the same capacity. We are all capable of the serenity of the Dalai Lama, of the courage of Rosa Parks, and the wisdom of Pops if we just remember that if someone else can do it, I can do it too.
I love the message of this song because it is an anthem for happiness. And that is where the old man in the rain gets his redemption. He may not be as comfortable as many wealthy people in the world, but are they as happy as he is in their circumstances? Are we as happy as he is? Every person you meet can be your hero and inspiration because we are all in this together. Every smile that you see on the streets can become your smile, because we are all in this together. Every problem can be solved because not one of us needs to solve them alone.