I just got the engine oil and transmission fluid changed in one of my cars. We all know that this is important because our mechanics (and our parents before that) tell us that it is important. Metal parts which rapidly turn and rub and scrape against one another will soon wear down and eventually tear themselves apart if left to themselves. The people who engineered these machines built them so that a thin film of clean oil provides the protective coating necessary for these parts to glide smoothly, allowing machines to run free from failure for many years.
As I drove off imagining how my car’s powertrain was now happy and content because of its fresh lubricants, it occurred to me that perhaps this concept of lubricant has a wider application as well.
As does an engine, our society consists of many moving parts. Us. By “us” I mean individuals, families, businesses, schools, governments, political parties and a whole bunch more than I could possibly name. Each of these parts of society moves within its orbit and comes into regular contact with multiple other parts of the whole.
Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the “moving parts” which make up our institutions are becoming damaged from something akin to the lack of lubrication? Life today seems to be all about friction, with each of us becoming rubbed raw from contact with others who do not seem to care that they are becoming rubbed raw too.
It seems that for the last year, it has been impossible to read something without reading the name “Donald Trump”. I will join this trend, if only to suggest that Donald Trump may be as much a symptom as a cause of the friction we are experiencing these days. Each component of our common life seems to feel the need to crash into others, without any kind of buffer or cushion.
Just as I was trying to think of an example, Kathy Griffin came to my rescue with the now-infamous mock Trump beheading video. Sooo . . . . thanks, Kathy?
Whatever the intent of those doing the crashing, I believe that damage to all of us is the unfortunate result. Which is no way for any kind of system to operate if it is to have any reasonable sort of life expectancy. Do I sound like a frustrated engineer?
Which brings us to the next question – just what, exactly, is that lubricant that our society needs right now. There are those who consider intoxicating beverages a good social lubricant, and in certain circumstances (and applied according to label directions) it can be. But I am thinking bigger.
Our legal system once acted as a sort of lubricant. I fear, however, that as it has expanded into the lives of more and more people (particularly in ways that many consider unfair) it has lost much of its lubricating quality, much as old engine oil can become contaminated by teeny metal particles and dirt, thus becoming as much abrasive as lubricant.
Religion seems to have been corrupted in the same way. I do not mean to suggest that social lubrication is a primary goal of faith, but it has tended to be a side effect, particularly among those within a common faith. Even within a community that is theoretically united, there is discord today. When “progressive” Catholics can’t agree on some basics with “traditionalist” Catholics or when Islam can contain both those who wish to deepen their ties to their maker as well as those who wish to blow infidels to Kingdom Come, that faith has, at least in some ways, lost its ability to lubricate.
I would suggest that the best kind of lubricant may be basic human kindness. I think that a lubricating kindness and decency used to be more common, generated naturally from regular interaction with a close community made of family and friends. In that era community ties were measured in decades instead of months or in towns and counties instead of in countries or continents. You knew that the grocer who sold you your fresh produce was going to be there selling it next month and next year as well. Your kids went to school together and you might run into him at the hardware store on a Saturday morning or at church on Sunday.
But in our modern era of fragmented families and mobile living we don’t know the people who sell us our food or bring us our news. The businesses we deal with become faceless blobs run by anonymous titans who live in faraway places and who only want our money, seemingly not caring how they go about getting it. We think we know the famous people who entertain and inform us, but we really don’t – and they certainly don’t know us.
And then there is the internet. We have the ability to make connections with so many others. This can be good, as with the many people I have met through my blogging, if only electronically. The opposite is true as well, because this medium makes it so easy to respond harshly when someone types something that irritates, a harshness that can become like a tidal wave if enough like-minded people decide to pile on.
So as tempting as it might be for me to continue to level charges at “others” for the destructively abrasive state of our civilization, my efforts should start right here with the guy tapping these keys.
And it is so easy for this key-tapper to preach about how everyone else should be nicer to one another . . . until he has to deal with three separate levels of customer service at his mother’s mortgage company, none of which can talk to him because there seems to be no record of the third copy of the power of attorney that was faxed last week. The system resulting from the unholy alliance of bureaucrats and programmers seems designed to generate friction in even the best of circumstances.
A society that seems to generate ever more friction is in desperate need of more (and better) lubrication. And I see no alternative but for each of us to recognize where and when it is needed and to keep a supply handy so that we can apply some when we are able. Whether your interpersonal oil can gets topped off through your faith (as mine tends to be) or by other means, I think it is time we all start using it more.