‘Leaders’ don’t save world; ordinary people do

I don’t know about you, but I would consider myself a happy man if I could manage to live the rest of my life without ever having to hear another human being utter the phrase “raise the debt ceiling.” I would be even happier if I never had to hear anyone declare war on “wokeness,” whatever that is. Between the sad and ugly war in Ukraine, the accelerating climate catastrophe, and the ever-widening gap between the planet’s haves and have-nots, don’t we have enough to worry about without turning on each other with a rage fueled by talking heads who rake in millions by intentionally inflaming the passions of people who largely want to be left alone?

I cannot watch the news without suffering bone-crushing angst and uncontrolled weeping, which coincidentally is exactly how I used to feel whenever I watched the Mariners play. It feels like the world consists of two non-intersecting circles on a Venn diagram, one containing the world’s political leaders and pundits and the other containing the rest of us, with most feeling wholly inadequate to do anything to lift the collective burden of the world’s eight billion inhabitants. The world’s problems are too big for individuals like us to solve. Or are they?

There is an ancient religious tradition mentioned in Islamic, Jewish and Persian literature that holds that the world is prevented from being destroyed by the presence in every generation of a small number of just men and women who, through their conduct and good deeds, ensure the survival of our planet—a planet that otherwise would have been destroyed long ago by an angry and vengeful God, a God who, Mark Twain said, created man because She was disappointed in the monkey.

According to the traditions, these few men and women – numbering just 36 – who keep the world from being destroyed are ordinary people with no special claim to merit distinction. They go about their affairs and, in times of upheaval, provide an oasis of sanity even as the world’s leaders strut and posture, making grand pronouncements and manipulating the levers of power, often setting in motion unspeakable calamity and unimaginable suffering.

These 36 good men and women, known as the Tzadikim or Lamedvaniks in Jewish tradition, operate inconspicuously and with supreme humility, unrecognized by each other or the rest of humanity. The tradition holds that any person who claims to be one of the 36 can’t possibly be one because humility would preclude them from making such a claim. Furthermore, the tradition holds that if one of the 36 comes to understand his or her true significance they die, and their position is assumed by another.

The tradition plays a role in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah where God incinerated the two cities in a sea of fire and brimstone after Abraham was unable to produce 10 righteous men in either city. God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she defied Him and glanced back at the burning cities.

And so, despite the unrelenting carnage and parade of bad news, I continue to take comfort in the thought that the salvation of the world may lie in the hands of 36 ordinary people, leading simple lives, working hard for the fate of their fellow human beings.

I know some of these people, and so do you. They are the teachers and principals who run toward the sound of gunfire in their schools rather than away to save their students when their political leaders won’t. They are the firefighters and first responders who run up fire stairwells into burning buildings like the Twin Towers to bring down stunned victims of cowardly acts of terrorism knowing that their journey into that burning hellscape will be a one-way trip. They are the doctors and aid workers who travel to war zones to try to ease the suffering of people trapped in cities reduced to rubble by cruel men living in palaces. They are the volunteers at homeless shelters, in hospitals and in every place where a kind word and a helping hand is needed more than a snarky tweet or empty platitude.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly column for this newspaper.