I wrote and delivered my first speech, many years ago, for a contest run by The Optimist Club. The topic was, “Together We Will.” I don’t remember, now, what I wrote. I do remember that I lost out to Mom, God, and apple pie. The lesson learned? Never go up against Mom, God, or apple pie.
I don’t remember what the other speeches were about, just that they invoked God, motherhood, and country. The messages were simple and superficial, and they resonated with the judges. Mine, I vaguely recall, had something to do with solving a pressing crisis – because I’d convinced myself that, together, we really could make a difference – but whether that crisis involved eliminating war, illiteracy, poverty, hunger, pollution, or the clubbing of baby harp seals, I honestly don’t remember. I realize, in retrospect, that pointing out problems to be solved carried too much negativity for a contest run by optimists. I still think that, together, we could do all those things, and more.
But I’m no longer the optimist I was when I delivered that impassioned, if naïve, speech; I don’t really believe that we will. Because to do it, our will would have to be greater than our apathy.
Flash forward a few years after that unmemorable speech: I was in community college, serving as a student senator. One of the problems we saw, on campus, was the difficulty of getting students all fired up and involved in things. And so, we embarked upon a campaign to rekindle their enthusiasm. We made and wore big buttons with the words: STAMP IT OUT! emblazoned on them. The idea, of course, was to spark interest in our cause – to get people asking, “Stamp what out?” so that we could cheerfully answer, “Apathy!” to raise awareness of the problem.
The problem ran so deep that no one – not one student – ever asked.
What does it take to overcome such apathy?
Does it have to take a crisis so bad, so pressing, that it makes us not just aware, but painfully aware, that it must be solved or we could actually die? Or do we fatalistically assume we’re going to die, and calculate our odds of doing so before the problem lands on our doorstep like a rotten egg tossed from a speeding car? Do we cynically count the cost of action versus the cost of doing nothing, knowing that it’ll be hard and time-consuming and we would rather do almost anything but work on solving it?
I imagine Scarlett O’Hara: “Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. Global warming? But it’s positively frigid here in Atlanta. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Like when polar bears are roaming Peach Street.
I think about the ancient, once-thriving civilizations that have disappeared, leaving only the tiniest, most tantalizing clues as to who and what they were, and wonder if all, inevitably, reach that point. I think maybe their collective epitaph reads:
We coulda, we shoulda, but we wouldn’t – and we didn’t.
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