My Turn: A view of the common lot of humanity

For the Monitor
Published: 1/23/2021 6:20:03 AM

When I was a boy on the farm, my father encouraged me to build up my muscles, whether by cutting firewood from the woodlot in the winter, carrying two five-gallon cans of milk, hoeing long rows of strawberries, or cleaning out the stables and spreading the horse manure on the fields.

We would compare arm muscles after a long day’s work. My 90-pound body with its skinny arms never measured up to dad’s. But I understood the necessity of physical strength was the common lot of adulthood.

For centuries, physical strength has been a principle factor for survival: hunting, raising food, building shelter, and waging war. Even today, a muscled athlete, a steelworker, a miner, or police and military in battle gear project might and superior power. In the fantasy world, super heroes inevitably overcome adversaries with super physical powers. The physically weak have often been a source for jokes and pity.

So, it should have been no surprise when the U.S. Capitol building was stormed by white nationalists filled with fear, anger, and self-righteous conspiracy theories. It should have been no surprise at how easy it was for Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, to whip them into a frenzy by calling for “trial by combat.” It should have been no surprise to hear the cheers when Donald Trump Jr. warned Republican members of Congress who did not back the pro-Trump efforts: “We’re coming for you.” And it should have been no surprise that Trump was able to play the violence card by saying: “You will never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. . . . Go to the Capitol. I’ll be with you.”

Watching the destructive and life-threatening invasion of the Capitol building was like watching a deadly self-destructing virus, infecting humanity’s emotional, creative, and rational immune system. We saw democracy withering, the doors to hospitality closing, racial constructs gaining strength, environmental health collapsing, and truth-telling muzzled.

However, growing up on the farm was not exclusively focused on the necessity of physical labor. Each evening at the dinner table our parents led my siblings and I in conversation to build up our brain power. We were lured into discussions about organic farming, economics, politics, religion, creativity, civility, overcoming bullies, value of education, cultural and racial relationships, taking initiative and risks. We learned there were many alternatives to coercive force as a way of life.

It seems humanity’s common lot does not have to be exclusively self-destructive brute strength. A more thorough reading of human history reveals an innate human capacity for memory, imagination, innovation, love, and empathy. It’s brain, not brawn, that has conceived and designed the wheel, houses, chairs, refrigerators, computers, food and water distribution, COVID-19 vaccines, literature, culture, democracy, charities. The insurrection at the Capitol illustrates the need to put our brains in gear and our brutish nature into neutral. Our future is not “storming the castle” but speaking peace-with-justice-truth to power. Exercising and engaging the brain and heart accesses many creative ways to speak truth without destroying the people, property, and spaceship earth that sustain our humanity and our lives.

It begins by taking a hard look at our cautious silence that gave permission to conspiracy theorists and racists to act out as they did at the Capitol. We’ve ignored the predictability of such violence stemming from a racist movement rooted in the confederacy, nativism, and the oppression of indigenous peoples. We’ve been blind to the resolve of some legislators and some Capitol police complicit with insurrection. And we’ve neglected to acknowledged that the training of our military personnel has left many of them with only the skills of coercive force, exhibited at the nation’s Capitol.

I was given ideas for the next steps to engage mind and heart by watching the inauguration events on Wednesday. There was a thread running through the inauguration ceremony, the speeches of President Biden and Vice President Harris, and the virtual participation of many people and institutions throughout the country. Unity with diversity was stressed over and over. There was a serious sincerity in the events but there was also an infusion of smiles, joy, and humor – not for the win of a political party but for the freedom to express inclusion, faith, creativity, love, and justice. There was poetry, music, theater, dance, acrobatics, and marching bands from many different cultural roots – all Americans.

I saw a view of the common lot of human beings with brains and hearts at work. It was not utopia, but a suggestion of a way to overcome divides and strained relationships with civility and effective change for the benefit of all people. The way is through books filled with information and reasoned truth. It is through discussions around the kitchen table and over the backyard fence. The way to understanding of others is through songs, poems, rallies, political theater, and even affirming bumper stickers. A greater America validates and praises reason. It thrives through diplomacy, empathy, and love. It is sustained with a democratic system where the people vote and hold elected leaders accountable.

A just world supports and nurtures every person, and summons the wisdom to make it happen. It can be future humanity’s common lot.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord and can be reached at


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