By Victor D. Infante

On your left hand you have a body, beaten and bloodied, desperately in need of assistance. On your right you have an ideology, purely abstract, a series of hypothetical if-then statements. Choosing which of the two should command your immediate attention seems a matter of common sense, but these times are not common and are mostly nonsensical.

Does it matter who the body is? Let’s say it’s a black trans woman from New Orleans, one of several found murdered in recent months. Let’s say it’s a Latino schoolboy, descended on by schoolyard bullies chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Let’s say it’s a cop. Or a soldier. Or a Muslim family at a wedding in Syria. Let’s say it’s a reporter, covering a protest. Let’s say it’s a protestor. Let’s say it’s a Mexican woman screaming as her children are torn away from her by armed men in body armor. Let’s say it’s a Jewish boy for whom a community center is no longer safe. Let’s say it’s a Christian boy for whom a church no longer feels safe, either. Let’s say it’s me. Let’s say it’s you.

There is not an ethical system on Earth that does not compel a person to aid any of these people, if it’s within your power. And if you were there, perhaps you would. Perhaps you’d stand between a child and his tormentors, between a family and soldiers, between monsters and victims. Or maybe you’d be afraid. It would be understandable. You’re only human. You’re only as human as any of them, and whoever you are, I’m certain you’re wounded, in some way, because that’s the human condition. We all endure loss and pain, and those things change us. Sometimes they make us stronger. Sometimes they make us cowards. Sometimes they make us a little of both, and a change in the light or the temperature would change the decisions we would make. Few of us are always heroes, and few of us are always weak. Most of us are a coin flip away from being saints or sinners. Most of us are scared all the time.

Most of us are not usually in the position where they have to immediately decide to be hero, villain or simply paralyzed by fear. We view the heartbreak remotely, in newspaper articles posted online, for which most of us have only read the headlines. Or worse, we read dissections of those unread stories, the real lives depicted within reduced to suppositions and straw men. We become superheroes of our social media world, a virtual perch where somehow we are always right and always brave, where our hypothetical judgments are true and sound, and our moral superiority is unimpeachable. And silently, we’re grateful that it is not a body to the left of us, but rather the virtual representation of a body – a tweet or a Facebook post or some other string of zeroes and ones that we can distance ourselves from, that we can pretend is not an approximation of a real life, a real scream, real blood. We think we know what we would do in that situation, but we’re not really sure, and quietly, we’re kind of OK with that. The problem with being tested is that we run the risk of failure. As long as we don’t know the truth about ourselves, we can look ourselves in the mirror. As long as we remain within the artificial construct of our ideology, we are right. We invest a lot of effort into being right.

But here’s the problem: That body is still beaten and bleeding, no matter what you believe. It is not a hypothetical for you to posture over against invisible Internet enemies. He is unarmed and has been shot by police, or she was attacked leaving a bar, or he is a child who was simply playing in his yard, or she was simply attending church, or he was just going to school. They are real people, who bled real blood, which is now soaked into the Earth, and the Earth is different for that loss. Their lives had value. They mattered. Every single one of them, no matter what your ideology may say.

It’s only a glint of the light in our eyes or a shiver in the cold that separates any of us from any of the bodies which become headlines to unread stories. Their pain is real, as your pain is real, and that matters more than any ideology. It’s only in empathy, in acknowledging each others’ pain, that anything can change.