Sunday, March 1, 2015

Am I my brother's keeper?

This is one of those more serious posts -- not driven by any agenda in particular, just the result of my actual thinking abut stuff. I promise, it won't happen often.

I just finished watching The Quarrel (one of my favorite movies) for the umpteenth time and, as happens with good movies, I got something more out of it this time, an insight which I hadn't thought about before. The movie's central argument isn't about the choice to be driven by faith or reason, or about seeing the best in man or the worst, but about something else: the central argument is about man's responsibility to another man.

In the movie, two survivors of the Holocaust reconnect in Montreal. Before the war they were very close until one moved away from religion and the other stuck with it. Those pre-war attitudes were then nurtured by life in the camps and in Siberia with each man facing parallel life and death struggles and personal loss and coming away having confirmed what he developed as a personal ideology earlier in life. The men argue about God and man and the relationship between the two, and also about how each dealt with the rift over religion which developed all those years ago. At one point, the man who has embraced rationality and the secular world rails against his friend that the friend never accepted him for who he became. The friend (either at that moment or at some other time in the argument) says basically that he wanted to save the secular man from the non-religious life. That is the crux of it -- does the religious man know what's right for the other man better than the other man knows about himself? And conversely, should the secular man be trying to "fix" the irrational religious belief in his friend because he sees things with his own version of clarity and he 'knows' that adherence to religion is unnecessary.

If I saw you holding a gun to your head, would I have a responsibility to walk over and stop you from harming yourself? If I saw you about to eat something poisonous accidentally, must I stop you? What about if I saw you smoking cigarettes? What if I saw you walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk? At what point do I impose my sense of right/wrong or safe on to you? When do I stop?

We give shots to little kids because we feel we know better than a baby about how to prevent disease. We tell our growing children not to eat so many sweets, to watch less television and to cross at the green and not in between. We know better. What about your emotional growth? Can I tell you when you are acting like a jerk because I know better than you how to behave? And then, what about your spiritual existence -- if I see you making a decision that puts your immortal soul at risk, what rights do I have in terms of stepping in and even just telling you that you are wrong or deciding that you can't be trusted to make decisions for yourself so I should make them for you? When is someone no longer a possessor of a sound mind and/or body and who gets to decide?

And is any decision to step in, on any level for any reason, driven by responsibility in that we are all mutually tied to ensure the protection and success of every member of our species? Is it a choice or an imperative? If I don't do it am I actively doing something wrong or am I just missing an opportunity to do something right? Was the religious man required to say something to his secular friend? Was the secular man obligated to persuade the religious man of his "folly"? Is the friendship about acceptance or about saving each other?

Just some questions. I have no answers.

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