My Dad, who was notorious for repeating useful nostrums as though they were Gospel, had a limited but effective collection of epigrams he liked to trot out whenever his boys required illuminating instruction. Some of these Rules to Live By were gleaned from his formative years in the Marine Corp, where he learned essential truths, like, “If you want a job done right, do it yourself.” Some of them, such as his unflagging belief in the Law of Supply and Demand, were derived from high school economics class. And others, I discovered as I grew older, were cribbed from great thinkers like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Sir Isaac Newton.
My brother Eric and I were reminded often by our Dad that “for every action, there’s an opposite and equal reaction.” My father didn’t go to college; he was an autodidact who read voraciously. He may not have been sure if this Natural Truth was Newton’s Third Law of Motion, or something else. But he uttered it often, particularly when he felt his boys needed stark proof that our decisions had consequences. We were made to understand that our actions — or lack thereof — didn’t occur in a vacuum. Our choices had ramifications, and we would be wise to consider these consequences as part of our decision-making process.
I’ve been recalling Dad’s insight lately, musing on how my actions (and those of my fellow Americans) have an opposite and equal reaction in places most of us will never visit, let alone identify on a map. Like the mythic butterfly whose flapping wings initiate a typhoon on the opposite side of the globe, our seemingly benign, cloistered lives here in the United States may in fact contribute to genuinely awful circumstances for distant brothers and sisters we’ll never know, except as subjects in horrifying newspaper stories and heart-wrenching photo essays. Like physicians, our first impulse is to do no harm. But our second impulse, inculcated in us by a capitalist culture run amok, is to consume conspicuously, gorging ourselves on the resources at hand and also far away, living in a constant state of unsated dissatisfaction that can only be medicated by the More of Everything drug.
We shake our heads in disgust at the Islamic Saudi court that sentences a gang-rape victim to prison and severe corporal punishment for being alone with a man other than her husband. (And then increases the sentence and disbars her lawyer for appealing the sentence.) But we barely pause to consider how our infatuation with automobiles, particularly gas-guzzling SUVs and “high performance” luxury sedans, contributes to the fiscal well-being of one of the world’s most despicable monarchies.
We wring our hands over the constant mistreatment of Chinese citizens by their despotic tyrants, who control nearly every aspect of daily life, including what can and cannot be viewed on a computer screen, printed in a newspaper, or uttered in a public square. But few of us are willing to pay higher prices on our precious consumer items, since, after all, “Made in China” still connotes cheap and efficient labor, not human rights abuses.
We fret strenuously — and maybe even write our Congressman — about the genocide in Darfur, and the senseless killing in Iraq, and all the other places on our planet where religious intolerance continues to lead to unimaginable cruelty. But even as we stream out of Sunday services at our Mega-Churches, freshly bathed in the encouraging words of our smiling Pastor, we’re unable (or unwilling) to see that our own deeply ingrained intolerance for the mysterious Other (homosexuals, women who want abortions, anyone who belongs to a different religious cult than ours) has an opposite and equal reaction born from the leaders we elect and the “issues” we tell them are important to us. It’s OK (if comically ignorant) for Christians to think that gay marriage is the biggest threat facing our country; but the hordes of Americans who allow this “moral” concern to guide their Presidential vote should realize that there are real and horrible consequences attached to their prejudices.
None of us likes to feel as though he is abetting evil, even from what feels like a comfortable distance. If my Daddy were still around, though, he would remind us of Newton’s Law, and he would hope we would take a minute to think about what we’ve done and what we still can do.