By John Roemhild, North Central University (MN)
A high school student from my area committed suicide this past year. I didn’t know him, but I attended his class’ graduation ceremony, where a special mention was given in his honor. As the whole arena — this was a class of four-hundred-some students and their family members — roared in applause at his name, I couldn’t help but notice a few girls in particular that stood up as they clapped. When they sat back down, they smiled at each other and exchanged high fives.
This bugged the crap out of me. Why did they do this? I’m pretty sure they didn’t think his death was something cool or funny; it seemed like they were just proud of themselves for “caring” more than the other students. This gut interpretation of their somewhat inappropriate behavior was more or less confirmed when I was told of all the other public displays of shallow or phony sympathy that were happening. People who never sat with him at lunch or barely spoke a word to him got “R.I.P.” tattoos with his name. His still active Facebook page flooded with competitively escalating “we love you’s” and “we miss you’s” of all varieties.
Now I’m aware that I’m writing on a very sensitive topic and that there is no way for me to truly test the sincerity of these statements and actions, but something just seems very off about this. I can’t help but wonder – where was this emphatic applause and overwhelming support when the guy was alive? I very much understand the phrase “to feel alone in a crowd of people,” but if he was blatantly surrounded by friends and family who expressed their love so enthusiastically, would he still have ended his life? It just seems unusual.
Do you actually care about who or what you say you do? Or do you rather just care that others think you do? Even trickier, do you perhaps just care for others so that you don’t consider yourself a selfish person in your own eyes? Is the need to care about something, but nothing in particular, selfish in itself?
Is this convention of thought a good thing? Because a person can certainly wave a picket sign and feel accomplished without making any difference whatsoever.
This type of person, whose goodwill stems from avoiding personal selfishness or public disapproval, is either satiated too easily by the smallest accomplishment: “I dropped a five in the Salvation Army bucket and I’m super proud.” Or they are hopelessly crushed by the magnitude of the task and compassion fatigued: I went on a mission trip to Haiti once, but it’s just kind of old news now, right? I’m just not interested in going again.” Unless their charity is fashionable, these people aren’t interested.
On the other hand, there are people who seem to never tire of giving and sacrifice, without regard for public opinion. They are motivated by a fascination in helping their cause — an insatiable addiction to progress or restoration. Their compulsion to help people is rooted in very different soil.
Mother Teresa helped the sick and dying for a very long time before she became famous for it. We don’t marvel so much at any one thing she did so much as her unbelievable, unfailing dedication in doing so. Anyone can help the hungry and poor, but to do it consistently and actively for forty-five years? That’s almost unheard of. I’m not saying we should all be trying to be the next Mother Teresa, but there’s something there that’s really admirable and worth striving for.
As I see it, these are the two types of caring people: those that give for themselves and those that give for others. I want to be the second type. I want to give my time and energy and expect nothing in return simply because the giving needs to happen.
Part of this challenge for me is narrowing down my focus enough to make taking action achievable. While it seems right to care about everything, I cannot join every cause I want. It seems like it would take a lot of time and practice to grow into the genuinely caring lifestyle I admire, but hopefully that’s the road I am started on, and hopefully many others are too.
John Roemhild is a columnist at The New Student Union. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.