Apart from the so-called “Golden Rule,” no law or commandment compels us to be “good Samaritans,” and help other people. In fact, there seems to be a general prejudice against unabashed “do-gooders.” In most cultures, the idea seems to prevail that things in general should be left as they are. The Brits say, “Leave well enough alone.” In French they have the expression “Laissez Faire.” In Australia, it’s “She’ll be right.” And of course, Americans insist that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
A similar apparently universally approved idea is that “It Really Doesn’t Matter.” In German they say “Macht Nichts” (which American servicemen heard as “Mox Nix”). In Hebrew, the expression is “Ain Davar.” In French, it’s “Ça Ne Fait Rien” – which has been anglicized to “San Fairy Ann.”
But why this groundswell of social wisdom against trying to make things better?
The Hippie philosophy, which I once tried to express in a whole series of songs called “The Haight/Ashbury Songbook,” embraced the idea of inward, rather than outward, improvement. Its concluding anthem (to the tune of “Red River Valley”) sang:
“Oh, I hear you’ve been talking of justice,
Of improving the world and all men –
But I tell you, that road is a circle,
Leading back to yourself once again.”
So, where are the true fixers, the outward-looking believers in creating, to whatever extent possible, heaven on Earth? Longfellow gave us something to aim at, in his “Psalm of Life,” which concludes with the rousing challenge:
“Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate,
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor – and to wait.”
There are many historical examples of people who have been up and doing in the interests of their fellow humans. Some have participated in “intentional communities,” devoted to various kinds of Good Works. Unfortunately for idealism, however, those experiments in human perfectibility have rarely lasted very long – either because of outside pressure (sometimes sadly expressed very violently, when whole benevolent communities have been wiped out by their ignorant or jealous neighbors) – or because the temptations of the outside world have proven stronger than any urge to sacrifice worldly comforts for the sake of Humanity.
The one exception to this generalization however, seems, throughout the centuries, to have been highly organized religious systems, like the monasteries and convents of our own culture. But even these, where they still exist at all, are today mere shadows of their former selves. I once had my own experience of this phenomenon when, on a visit to Israel some years ago, I spent a night on Mount Tabor – a prominence in the north of the country which, right up to the present day, has been of great strategic and religious importance. To Christians, it was the site of Jesus’ Transfiguration, and various kinds of religious structures have at different times stood on it.
On this occasion, having heard that you could still get hospitality from the Tabor monks, I had climbed the mountain on foot, and was indeed allowed to stay at one of the two large buildings on top, a monastery maintained by the Roman Catholic Church. Despite its size, however, this establishment, which must once have housed scores of monks, was now the home of just two Brothers, one of whom showed me around, before serving me a humble meal. But this was still a thriving establishment in comparison with the other building, some distance away, which, I learned, was inhabited by a single elderly Greek Orthodox Priest, who did not even associate with his two fellow inhabitants of the mountain.
If I were a Christian, I would choose to be a Quaker, because the Friends, as they call themselves, seem to practice their faith more literally than most of their brethren, seeking in many parts of the world to make peace, and help the afflicted. But of course, other Churches send out “missionaries,” some of whom actually devote themselves to improving the lives of less fortunate peoples. And there are groups with no religious affiliation, such as Doctors Without Borders, who do important and dangerous work in troubled countries.
And nowadays even Governments want to get into the act, as with our Peace Corps, founded by President Kennedy in 1961. Despite the injunction about “what ain’t broke,” If you want to risk your life and health, bringing aid to others in distant places, there are still plenty of opportunities for volunteers to help fix a broken world.