It seems as though we have little power to affect real change in society and that most of the rhetoric encouraging civic engagement usually relies on either ideological platitudes or a privileged sense of resentment. And when I say, “real change,” I mean institutional change; I mean the intentional, collaborative directing of social energies towards a reorganizing of the socio-political fabric into something more humane. Certainly types and degrees of change occur: popular imagination evolves, barriers are broken, boundaries transgressed, new laws passed. But the sort of world in which most of us would like to live looks as far off and unlikely now as it ever has, except, perhaps, for those whose vision for that world has the power of ideology or naiveté behind it. We still kill each other over money, we still ruin lives and landscapes in order to maintain a high level of unnecessary consumption, we still fight over opposing national identities, ethnic groups, and religious affiliations, we still hate one another due to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. It appears that The Angel of History, whose wings were long ago caught in the storm of progress, still finds himself unable to tarry and tend to the wreckage of this world. Perhaps it is in our inability to tarry and tend the wreckage that we find the poetic impulse to say: only a god can save us. Then Nietzsche immediately reminds us of what we did to the gods: “This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”
Now, to be sure, this is not an assertion that we ought to avoid civic and political involvement altogether, nor is it labeling the desire to change the world as necessarily misguided. Clearly, we should be involved, in some way, in the affairs of our communities and try to alleviate suffering when we can. Yet, for many of us, there remains a sense of helplessness, a loss of genuine agency in the broader scope of social and political life. Alone or in the company of like-minded friends, it seems as though we can do little but stand by and watch as the affairs of the day move along—inexorably—according to institutional forces and social energies beyond the influence of the gentler, more humane, powers we possess. Chief among these gentler powers, it seems to me, is simply compassion, which, I have argued elsewhere, arises within the moral imagination. We find its most beautiful expressions in forgiveness and grace. This humble power stands against any merciless enactment of will or privilege at the expense of others. It grants the possibility of finding another way through this world other than the tyranny of the bottom line and the tragedy of absolute efficiency.