I found the above story on Twitter. It is attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead as told to Ira Byock. It relates how Mead felt that the first sign of civilization within a culture was finding a broken femur that had healed, indicating that someone had taken the time to allow an injured person to heal by protecting and caring for them.
It’s an interesting story, though the tweet has since been removed, probably because someone questioned its veracity.
Rather than track down where this story came from to confirm it, I want to take the story at face value in order to talk about a basic social contract we maintain with varying degrees of success. This is a social contract of care and concern.
This contract begins with the birth of human infants, who are notoriously fragile. If a baby is not immediately cared for, it will die. Because young humans take so long to mature, those who care for them are in it for the long haul, ideally for 18-20 years. While we can meet their basic needs of food and water, shelter, clothing, and caring for them while sick or injured, if we don’t simultaneously provide them with love and concern, many of them will carry psychological baggage that can stunt their development their whole lives unless they get the help they need to overcome it.
Because this care and concern is critical to the survival of the human species and providing it takes so long, it’s become a social contract that many of us follow unconsciously. There’s a reciprocity to it. If I take care of you, you’ll take care of me. This is the Golden Rule that appears in one form or another in civilizations past and present all over the globe. Whoever helped the person with the broken leg in Margaret Mead’s story may have later needed help to survive.
This social contract of care and concern ends up codified in religious texts, like the Ten Commandments, or in legal documents, like the U.S. Constitution. These written contracts of care and concern are meant not only to help people survive, but, ideally, to thrive. That’s what the whole “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence is about … creating a social contract that helps people to live their most fulfilled lives.
When leaders or those who control the majority of a country’s resources break this social contract of care and concern, we feel it viscerally. Not only are our opportunities to thrive taken away, our very survival is at stake. We can see this with the current COVID-19 pandemic, where Donald Trump and his supporters have purposely modeled and encouraged activities that lead to the spread of the disease, which has killed almost 230,000 people in the U.S. in 8 months. Trump and his supporters have also been involved in activities too numerous to list that are also meant to break the social contract of care and concern. For those of us who take this contract seriously, this wanton disregard for most of the U.S. population gives rise to tremendous anxiety, fear, and anger. Breaking this contract leads to a lack of trust and our hearts howl at the unfairness.
However, for as much as Trump and his supporters work to dismantle the social contract for their own gain, there are those of us working to maintain and rebuild it. We’re tending to society’s broken bones, wounded hearts, and injured democracy.
Whatever the outcome of next week’s election, we need to hold this social contract of care and concern close, to remind ourselves of its importance to civilization, and to keep fighting for it. It’s a matter of life and death, as Margaret Mead’s story illustrates.