Monday, June 18 , 2018, 12:23 pm | Fair 68º


Ken Williams: Four Sayings to Inspire Better Lives for All

Turning our back on fame, glory and wealth, we turn instead to our neighbors in need without pretenses

[Note: This article is dedicated to all who allied themselves, through actions and deeds with the homeless and poor. At a time when society genuflects before ego and wealth, and senseless violence rages across the land and world, you stand in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others who had a different vision for our country.]

I once told a good friend of mine that I live my life by a saying. When I told him what it was, he looked at me like I was insane. When I think about it, it is actually four sayings that have deeply influenced my actions over the course of years.

The first one, the one that I take deeply into my heart, is to never be a “Good German.” This was the excuse that many used in Germany to justify their behavior during the homicidal Inquisition that ruled their lands for so many dark years. Their excuse was that they weren’t Nazis; apparently no one was, but merely good citizens who stood beside state and country in a time of crisis.

It was too risky, too frowned upon to fight the evil that was unleashed upon a defenseless and vulnerable population. Choosing to stand with the norms of a society gone mad, they forever linked their beloved country with pure evil. Their lesson is a simple and humane one. Societal and national norms are never above our moral beliefs. When we target the weak and vulnerable, when we make differences in skin color, nationality, mental health status or religion a reason to hate and fear, we also open our own hearts to evil. Allowing the outcast to stand alone, we betray whatever progress humankind has made. We become savages.

Which leads to the second saying or quote, depending on one’s belief, and here I paraphrase: As often as you do it for the least among you, you do it for me. For me this speaks of a simple truth. If one believes in a spiritual life, then how we conduct ourselves in this life is pretty simple. If there is a God, and if he or she did create us, then who among us wishes to stand before him or her and defend our treatment of the poor of the world? Who wants to justify the horror of starving children, or babies horribly burnt with napalm? Who wants to justify so much material possession and greed while the children of whatever god or deity that we believe in die such horrible deaths? And who wants to justify benign neglect of those without houses, or cruelly afflicted with mental illness when so much material things chock our planet? If God has any capacity for anger, I, for one, do not wish to see it when he or she takes stock of our time on Earth.

A wise man wrote from a fascist’s prison in 1930s Italy of a simple irreducible faith in his fellow human beings: “Pessimism of the mind. Optimism of the will.” He looked around at bars that enslaved his body but ones that could not enslave his humanity. He saw the gathering storm clouds of a hideous war that would claim millions of lives. He saw the sickness of fascism grown ever stronger, but he never gave up. Not because he wasn’t an intelligent man — he was — but because he refused to surrender to evil. Even knowing that he would die in jail and having no way of knowing if fascism would triumph and rule the world; and with everything that he could see with his own eyes telling him the futility of the struggle he refused to give up.

Whatever trails and roadblocks I have run into in my life, none compare to what he must have seen and felt — isolated and alone. It is not our intellect that gives us the courage not to surrender and to fight on, but our hearts. It is a spiritual and emotional belief that humankind will come out of the darkest of circumstances to walk together into a better tomorrow. That no matter the obstacles, with the willpower and knowledge that our fight for the poor is the morally correct one — actually, the only choice we can make — a day will come when the horrors of poverty, homeless and neglect will only be present in history books.

And, finally, the saying that shocked my friend all those years ago: The only good fight is the lost cause.

I do not take this as a negative outlook on the struggle on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, but rather as an acknowledgement and letting go of the outcome justifying the struggle. That neither material wealth, nor fame nor glory await those of us engaged in this struggle. This truth frees us to look at the struggle of the poor and see the real fight — and that is of the individual before us. That, while this is our moral struggle, it is their existence that is at stake.

Turning our back on fame, glory and wealth, we turn instead to our neighbors in need without pretenses. We turn to whatever injustice there is before us and become engaged. We are not Good Germans, nor purveyors of benign neglect, but simple citizens of a land where injustices are met head on and evil denied a playing field all to itself.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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