Sunday, July 25, 2010


Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.
Leviticus 19:16
In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, all are responsible.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

The other day as I walked through the supermarket, I noticed that a bag of marshmallows had fallen off the shelf and was precariously close to being squashed by the carts rolling by it. So I stopped, picked it up and placed it back on the shelf. I normally pick up displaced items in the market and I normally don't give it a second thought, but in this case I'd seen ten people navigate their carts around the bag, obviously noticing it, none of them stopping to pick it up and wondered about it.

Then later at work, I saw that the double-wide refrigerator that is graciously stocked with water, juice, soda, and the like had just a couple of bottles of water left. So, before taking one, I grabbed a crate of water bottles and began loading them into the fridge. As I did so, one of the engineers walked into the kitchen, reached over my shoulder to grab one of the remaining cold bottles, and said, "What happened? Did you get demoted or something?"

Then in the bathroom stall, I noticed (albiet a bit late) that the toilet paper on the roller was nearly gone. I turned to see that the spare roll sitting on the back of the toilet was also nearly empty, it's discarded wrapper lying on the floor. I made due with what was left, grabbed the empty rolls and crumpled wrapper, found some replacements, unwrapped one and placed it on the roller, and then placed the others on the back of the toilet. Must have taken all of twenty seconds. In this case, many guys must have observed the situation and none did anything about it.

At the end of the day, I stood in the parking lot talking to one of my colleagues and he dropped his pen. I stooped down to pick it up and then handed it to him all before he could react. He thanked me and apologetically said, "I could have got that."

I don't know, maybe I did get a demotion, maybe I'm obsessed with order, maybe I just hang out at the wrong markets, maybe I'm paranoid, but I think I've uncovered a conspiracy of ignorance. It's not that people don't see opportunities to contribute, to help, and to make things better. It's not as though the opportunities are limited or costly. And yet, the conspirators seem to ignore them, sometimes in concert. Why is that?

Pervasive Ignorance
Last Sunday night as Iris and I drove to New Jersey, I talked to her about people we know whom we've always helped in their times of need, but who in times where we could have used help, seemed to join the conspiracy ignorance and become idle standers-by.

For me, this had not been a new phenomenon. However, I had started to wonder whether or not helping the idle standers-by was the best use of my time. Until that point, I had always believed that the best way to inspire others to leave the conspiracy was to be an example; however, I've concluded that rather than inspiring others to leave the conspiracy, setting an example simply places you in the servant caste: the ones who pick things up, replace toilet rolls and load refrigerators.

Hitler's Germany
Of course, changing a toilet paper roll, picking up a pen, tossing an errant styrofoam cup into the trash, carrying a lost wallet to the lost-and-found, spending a couple hours a week helping a family with an autistic child are all little things. No big deal. But I can't help but thinking that people unwilling to do little things will do much better with big things.

Fortunately, we live in a time where there aren't big things (as long as you don't consider Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and Myanmar to be big). Or at least, there aren't big things close to home (as long as you don't consider autism, aids, the unemployed, or the uninsured to be big things). OK, maybe we do live in a time where there are big things going on, but fortunately they're big things that we can ignore.

The problem is that there's no future in ignorance. Ultimately, it's all Hitler's Germany. The ignoring population dwindles over time as the ignorers eventually become the ignored. It may take weeks, months, years or decades, but ignorance is not sustainable.

What to Do?
I'm long past my days of activism and protest, at least in the traditional sense. I've found so often that people involved in causes contribute to the cause by being unhappy: by getting upset about all the bad stuff going on and telling others that they too should be upset. Doesn't seem particularly productive to me.

Other groups seem all about studying the problem and understanding it, which is fine I guess. However, I'm coming to the belief that almost all problems that get studied are simply the result of ignorance. One could study the effects of cigarette smoking forever trying to figure out the root cause of the problem, but in the end, if the cigarette manufacturers simply stopped ignoring the effects of their products (read actively embraced and paid attention to) the problem would go away. I'm not talking about the executives whom we typically vilify. I'm talking about every employee--the executives can't produce cigarettes on their own.

The same goes for so-called global warming; the problem results from billions of individuals ignoring it, or more accurately, ignoring their tiny, individual contribution to it.

Choosing Ignorance?
There are many reasons that we choose to ignore.

We believe that our actions wouldn't make a difference. A line worker at a cigarette plant thinks to himself, "Well, if I quit, they'd just get someone else."

We believe that we can't afford to pay attention. An employee at BP doesn't complain about potential safety problems because he can't afford to lose his job.

We believe that someone else will take care of it. They pay people to pick up the trash on the streets, don't they!

We believe that the problem is too big for us. How can I stop global warming?

We wait for someone else to go first.

I believe that the world changes through many, many, many people making little changes that affect those around them. I also believe that you don't have to go out looking for a problem to fix. All you have to do is stop ignoring the ones staring you in the eye. The beauty of it is that it's not at all hard and there are no strings attached. Stopping once to pick up an errant bag of marshmallows is easy and it doesn't imply any kind of contractual agreement to do it in the future.

What do you ignore?

Happy Sunday,


  1. :) I am one of the ones who refills the toilet paper, picks up the trash, returns the grocery carts of others and I have asked myself these same questions...and come to the conclusion for me that I do those things because of who I am and what I want my world to be. It isn't so much about order or even "karma", but about being true to myself. I used to be an activist but have come to the same conclusions as you have....opposing something only seems to increase the anger and hate in the world. I will not go to an anti-war rally although that is my inclination, but I will march for peace forever. That is the way I live....picking up, restocking, clearing the way are all in support of life so that is what I do. It seems that the "ignorers" are truly ignorant of what it takes to support their own lives and those of the planet.
    At one time, I was a "fixer", but now I have come to a better understanding of what is mine and what is not. If I know of it, then it is mine to deal with because as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, we are responsible. For instance--it is not mine to clean my child's room or do his homework or cut my neighbor's yard unless the neighbor is old or ill and cannot do for himself.
    enabling versus supporting??????

  2. Sree,
    I think we share some parallels right down to pushing the shopping cart back to the store. In the end it's just creating the world I want to live in.

    I also find it much more useful and satisfying to be a pro-activist versus an anti-activist.

    I've done my share of fixing and still do from time to time. However, I've been leaning more into supporting than fixing.

    The line between enabling and supporting isn't always clear to me. However, I think it has to do with supporting an ignorer in a manner that allows the to continue in ignorance.

  3. Actually, Teflon, that first commenter wasn't me.

    As for me, everything you write makes sense. I have certainly done my share of ignoring, though I see it diminishing as my clarity of thought and awareness increase.

    Something that I personally found very useful for choosing what to ignore and what to get involved in was Stephen Covey's idea of a Circle of Influence and Circle of Control. It's similar to what you say - stop ignoring what's staring you in the eye.

  4. Reading this blog helped me appreciate the time I spend on picking up bottles in the parc and other things - it just makes the environment nicer, and it does change my life.


Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...