When emergencies like bitter winter cold hit, it’s amazing how many people step up to help others. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

We’ll always give when asked for more

  • January 18, 2024

On the evening of Saturday, Jan. 13, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency sent a province-wide alert on people’s cellphones stating that the province’s electrical grid was at high risk of having to implement rotating power outages. The day had been bitterly cold across Canada, including Alberta where all-time low temperatures were recorded.

Residents were asked to reduce their electricity use by turning off lights and space heaters and delaying charging electric vehicles. Within seconds, people across the province had reduced their electrical use by 100 megawatts. After a few more minutes, another 100 megawatts had been eliminated.

In our home, we turned off as many lights and appliances as possible. I confess that I continued to watch the Oilers-Canadiens hockey game with my laptop plugged in. If there had been another alert, I would have turned that off as well. Looking out the windows, we could see many neighbours had reduced the number of indoor lights and outdoor Christmas decorations that had been on. Many lights still shone, but perhaps people were not at home to turn them off.

All in all, it was heartening to see people respond immediately in the face of a public emergency. I have no doubt the residents of other provinces would have responded similarly had they faced such an emergency.

It always happens. If there is a hurricane or other natural disaster, people who are not directly affected reach out to help those who are. We see it also in our parish Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference. Parishioners respond with bounteous donations of food and money for the poor if we but ask.

Which leads me to wonder: why don’t our leaders ask more of us? Political campaigns are typically marked by the parties pandering to the electorate by promising more services (paid by our own money, of course). Rarely does a politician proclaim, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Even U.S. President John Kennedy’s famous statement to that effect came after the election, not during the campaign.

Most people want to help others, to contribute to the common good. But they often don’t know what they can do beyond contributing money. When asked for specific forms of help, they respond. Some don’t, however, and they complain loudly. Those complaints likely dampen our leaders’ reluctance to appeal to our generosity.

This broad willingness to contribute to the common good makes me wonder whether that is part of the appeal of Donald Trump. His campaigning often includes appeals to national miserliness — keeping out immigrants, isolationism and efforts to deny members of minority groups their voting rights. But all that falls under the broad slogan, Make American Great Again.

One could go on at length about Trump’s faults, but that is not the point. The point is whether he represents an implicit call to American magnanimity.

All people, I believe, have a desire to be part of something great, to live lives that mean more than our own self-seeking. Some are especially resentful of what they perceive as others’ self-seeking. Others are like the wise old monsignor I knew who said he would rather be remembered for being too merciful than for being legalistic.

Pope John Paul II’s second encyclical, Rich in Mercy, spoke of the God whose mercy knows no bounds. Can we not strive to be like our God?

Recently, I watched a Netflix documentary history of the Second World War. That war took the lives of three per cent of the world’s population and forced millions of others into an extended period of misery. In the Western world at least, most who survived put their lives on hold for many years. Yet, there was a broad willingness to do so because people believed there was glory in giving of oneself for the high ideal of freedom and the good of others.

Today, leaders ask nothing of us except to pay taxes, and perhaps they wonder why we are reluctant to give. Why are we so soft? Why do we build our lives around personal comfort and accumulating wealth, yet have little relationship with our neighbours? Perhaps it is because no one asks more of us. Perhaps it is because our leaders think we don’t care.

On a cold, cold night in Alberta, people showed they do care. Not much was asked of them, but they gave what was asked. Maybe we should ask more often.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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