What if we asked what we could do for other humans rather than focusing on what other humans can do for us?

Cindy Sheehan’s new proposal for the twentieth century, “Ask not what humanity can do for you, but what you can do for humanity” has got me thinking. What if we, as humans, focused on how we can help other humans, how we can collectively move everyone up the proverbial ladder, rather than how we can better our own individual lives via the new house, car, vacation, ipod… Better yet, what if we gave up the ladder paradigm and re-envisioned society not hierarchically but holistically?

In her piece, Sheehan critiques what she calls “USA have to War, Inc,” noting that the so-called “peace candidate,” Barak Obama, recently opined “I will call on a new generation of Americans to join our military, and complete the effort to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines.” Sheehan, to counter this argument, argues as follows:

“Instead of increasing the Pentagon’s already bloated budget, a true peace candidate would be calling for immediate withdrawal of forces from these countries so our military can begin the healing processes that need to occur to rejuvenate our broken military so we can have a true defense force and not an imperialistic ready response team to be on constant alert to storm any country at the whim of the emperor to spread corporate imperialism (what politicians call: Democracy) at the end of an M-16 or bombs bursting in air.”

If our military were, as Sheehan calls it, a “defense force” rather than an “imperialistic ready response team,” it could feasibly focus on helping humanity rather than on waging war in order to amass more power and wealth for the USofA. Such possibilities have presented themselves most recently here in California with the spate of fires. With disasters such as these, as with flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics, etc, the military (if it were available as a national defense force rather than being spread thin across the globe fighting to spread imperialism) could help defend people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods.

Last Tuesday, July 1, Governor Schwarzenegger ordered the California National Guard to provide ground support to aid in fighting the California fires. According to The Environment News Service, “they are mobilizing at least 200 soldiers to fulfill this mission.” 200? That seems like a small number in comparison to the call to increase the ground forces of the army and marines by 92,000. So, despite all the lip service paid to a big military as necessary for reasons of “national defense,” when areas of the country actually need defending, the military is by and large unavailable due to being otherwise occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. The same was true during and after Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, these so called “natural disasters” are at least partly the result of failing to fund our infrastructure and make needed repairs to levees, to fortify fire departments with the needed equipment, etc. Rather than spending money on keeping things running smoothly to the benefit of all humanity (you know, on things like roads, schools, social services) we funnel trillions to a fictitious “war on terror.”

This perpetual war goes against not only Sheehan’s directive to focus on helping humanity, but also Kennedy’s earlier call to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” As Sheehan points out, this proclamation was followed by the lesser-known statement, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Unfortunately, as humans we have chosen to abolish human life rather than to abolish human poverty. Moreover, by choosing the latter, we are exacerbating the former.

When I think about the call to focus on what we can do for humanity, I am reminded of going camping at the beach the other night. Seems that somehow camping brings out the best in people. They offer flashlights or give batteries to others who need them, share water/ice/food and other necessities with fellow campers, offer to help putting up tents, lend a hand collecting firewood, etc. And, my favorite, the campfire serves as a communal place of laughter, storytelling, and shared warmth. For those who forgot or run out of supplies during S’more-fest, others offer up their marshmallows or roasting sticks, and flames illuminate the faces of happy, marshmallow covered smiles deep into the night. Perhaps it is because when you are camping supplies are limited and the benefits of sharing are put into stark relief. The same limitation of supplies is true, of course, in every day life. There is only so much earth to go around. However, many forget the benefits of sharing the planet and all its wonder as they go about their daily lives. When you live here, in the heart of empire, and you are able to turn on lights with the flick of a switch, flush your toilet, go to your sink for running water, it is too easy to forget how many people do not have electricity, plumping, or clean water privilege.

If, as when camping, we were put in close proximity with other humans and prompted to realize their lack of supplies, we might be willing to share our plenty. Yet, once cocooned back in our private homes or big honking SUVs, we live lives sequestered from the needs of others. Sadly, we too often forget that we should focus on what we can do for other humans. So, how about those of you reading try this experiment: for today, focus on how you can help the other humans you come into contact with. Perhaps it might be a small act, like offering to take an elderly neighbor to the grocery store, or perhaps it might be larger, like purchasing a tank of gas for someone who has been priced out by big oil. Perhaps it might be pointing out the racism of a particular advertisement or the sexism of a co-worker. Perhaps it might be writing a letter to the editor of your local paper or sending an email to a senator. Perhaps it might be being kind to a child or babysitting for a mom who needs a much needed break.

By raising each other up in ways both small and large, we could work towards a paradigm of shared responsibility as well as shared pleasures. So how about today, we ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for others? Heck, it just might catch on and, before we know it, Cheney will be asking how he can use his trillions to help the world rather than stashing it in his Halliburton pocket. Or, George W. Bush will donate his oil fortunes to the children of Iraq and Afghanistan and join the Save Darfur movement after retiring from his stolen terms in office. Maybe Schwarzenegger will give up his Hummers and use his muscle to end wealth inequality. One can dream, one can dream…

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