“Everybody is somebody.” My grandfather would occasionally use that phrase to explain to my long-suffering grandmother why he had brought yet another homeless person to their tiny apartment to share a meal. This was back in the depths of the Depression when my grandmother was feeding five children by making every scrap of food turn into nutrition. No waste, clean your plate and eat a piece of bread with that. Forty years later she was still using every part of every piece of edible food that came into her house.
My grandfather was following the dictates of the Talmud as he understood them and charity to others was a prime tenet. While he never handed out cash he was quick to share what he did have and would get righteously upset if questioned too closely by my grandmother. Who had the better argument? That was the meat of the conundrum of ethics that my family chewed over. Grampa who couldn’t stand others’ suffering or Grandma who already was performing miracles with meager rations?
I dearly loved my grandmother, but I understood Grampa’s feelings. Whether he had been instructed by his religion or not he couldn’t abide people going hungry when he had food to share. The basis of that feeling, I believe, was his empathy. Everyone he looked at stirred the feeling “there but for the grace of God go I" in him. He could clearly see the essential family relationship of all of us and felt the pangs of other’s hunger as though it was his own.
The most difficult lesson to learn, I think, is that everybody IS somebody. Survival of the fittest refers to species, not individuals. We are all expressions of the human DNA and as such we are all siblings. It is so easy to dismiss the entire rest of the population of the world, except for the few we consider family, as not human, not important, too different to be like me. These, or any other of the rationales we use to diminish the worth of other lives. In our money-worshipping society the denigration of the poor is endemic in the culture.
But “they” are us. It was easier to recognize this when we all lived tribal lives, when we were all related. Now, in our atomized existence, it is easier to dismiss the lives of others as their problem, not ours. That is a failure of imagination and a lack of empathy. None of us is safe from disaster, misfortune, bankruptcy, devastation and death. We share the human condition and helping one another is, in my grandfather’s mind, a “mitzvah” or good deed.
In order to understand another person it’s important to be able to put yourself in his or her place in your imagination, to feel what they feel, to see through their point of view. It’s actually easy to do once you understand that it could be you in the same situation if your life circumstances had been different.
I do understand that with seven billion of us walking around it is passing difficult to see us all as individuals. Still, that is the actual fact of life. Everybody is somebody.