Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)
“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
Margaret Thatcher, speaking in 1987
Why do we do anything? What is the motivating force that drives us to some sort of action, particularly when it’s something we would rationally choose not to do ourselves? Much public policy today is modeled on influential statements like Thatcher’s above. They take as a foundational principle that people can only be trusted to act in their own self-interest. When motivating people, therefore, turn to big carrots and big sticks, because those are the only reliable tools available to drive human behavior.
Except, well, that’s not really how people seem to work. It’s more complicated. People do good things for each other with no hope of rewards, financial or otherwise, all the time. The idea that we only act out of rational economic self-interest falls apart before countless examples of people doing difficult things for other people without any promise of reward. Think of the farmer in Kansas who sent a single N95 mask to New York State.Think of the widow’s coin. People are often irrationally generous when moved by the bonds of human connection, generosity demonstrated most fully in the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.
One of the most extreme examples of this sort of selfless service is what we celebrate this weekend. As a nation, we watch as our sons and daughters go off to serve in the armed forces in times of national crisis. Many volunteer; many were compelled through drafts or other means, but all were and are placed in often dangerous situations. These people, many still teenagers, demonstrate incredible courage, dedication, and selflessness every day. Those we commemorate were people with 40, 50, 60 years of life ahead of them, future families, comfort, and the rest, who instead answered a call to serve they did not survive.
There is no satisfying, purely economic answer for this behavior. People, bearers of the image of God, are surprising and surprisingly capable of good. Be encouraged by the witness and example of those we remember. Don’t stop looking for the good, and have a Happy Memorial Day.