Most of what I learned from my parents came from living life with them, rather than from any grand pronouncements they made. I suppose this was more like real life and less like a half-hour TV show, which has to button up life’s most complex dilemmas within 26 minutes and often ends with some vapid grand pronouncement, nods of agreement, and a fade to black. I racked my brain for some of these profound closing lines, but could not retrieve a single one.
Two grand pronouncements are firmly lodged in my mind, neither one from television. When I was about nine years old, my dad looked at me and said in a flat tone, “Don’t put beans up your nose,” a statement that would have made perfect sense a few years before when I was undoubtedly doing just that. But given the serious expression on his face, and the fact that I had graduated to putting raisins in my nose and beans only in my ears, I assumed there was something here that was eluding me, so I asked, and he replied that no, it was just good not to put beans up one’s nose. And then he grinned. I have tried to live by these words and have mostly succeeded. Want a raisin?
The second was from my mother, and was less funny. In fact it was not funny at all, and was actually a pivotal moment in that horrible experience of ‘growing up,’ or learning to do what our daughter calls ‘adulting.’ I had been the victim of some profound injustice, along the lines of someone cutting in line ahead of me, or an event being scheduled at an inconvenient time, or the man next door refusing to mow his half of the grass strip between our houses, meaning that I had to (deep sigh) mow the entire thing, by myself, including his sixty feet of it as well as ours (it was really about five feet, but IT’S THE PRINCIPLE THAT MATTERS). Anyway, Mom was listening and I was whining, and in exasperation I blurted out, “But that’s not fair.” Eternally seared into my consciousness are her four words, which opened my eyes to the stark realities of life, the darkness lurking around us, and the utter tragedy which is our meager existence on this earth: “Nobody ever promised you fair.” I still shudder when I remember it. Also it was five words, not four.
This pronouncement, coming on the heels of years of schooling that emphasized the importance of treating others fairly (and some marginal efforts on my part to do so), left me in stunned silence, as the whole world tilted, and I knew that from that moment on my life would never, ever be the same. Mostly I remember feeling shocked and angry at something that seemed totally wrong (unfair?), but that I somehow immediately knew was absolutely correct.
Today I am 51 (I think), and I know that life is unfair, and my life has been particularly so. I could start with the basics, like the fact that my parents stayed married (which correlates to higher adult income), or that they read to me and encouraged me to read (raises intelligence and test scores), or that we were deeply connected to a religious community (improves resilience and provides support during difficulties). All of these things happened to me, not as a result of anything I did, yet I benefited from each.
The unfairness rocks on. I was not born on a Native American reservation, where my life expectancy could have been 48 instead of 78 (these regions of the United States of America are more deadly than most foreign war zones). My parents both attended college, which meant that instead of asking “Can I go? Should I go? Am I smart enough to go? Will I be criticized if I go?” like most first-generation college students do, I simply asked, “Where would I like to go?” and I went. They also made sure it was paid for (which raises graduation rates by 15%).
I was born white, which is not that surprising, given what my parents look like. As a result, compared to most minorities, I was more likely to:
- grow up in a two-parent home
- live in a safe neighborhood
- attend a decent public school (or a really good private one)
- learn to read and write, both necessary for any reasonable career future
- graduate from high school
- graduate from college
- have a ‘white-sounding’ name, which in numerous studies doubles my chance of being called for an interview based on my resume
- go on to earn a good income, marry, and repeat the cycle for my own children
- …this list could go on and on, but you either get the point or you choose not to.
It’s easy to tell myself that my success is due to hard work, and someone else’s hardship is due to lack of effort or bad choices they made, especially since all my friends grew up in similar circumstances and had similar good outcomes, but the data suggests otherwise. In reality I was dealt an extraordinarily good hand, and I played it fairly well, and here I am. For a long time I told myself, “We all have the same opportunities, but I have just done more with mine.” This was a nice, comfortable lie.
Wealth disparity in America is getting worse, not better. The average income for the bottom 50% of Americans has risen less than 2% in the last 34 years, while the income of the richest 1% has almost tripled. Corporations continue to discriminate against the poor; basics like high speed Internet remain unavailable if you happen to live in the wrong neighborhood, even though your affluent neighbors a mile away can binge all the Netflix they want. Governments too: the Kansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week that the state had cut education funding in ways that impacted poor and minority students far more than others, meaning those most at risk were receiving even less help, making them less likely to graduate, go to college, etc. etc., and so the poor get poorer.
I am not naive; in fact whatever is the opposite of naive (cynical? obnoxious? obtuse?), I am that. I know that life is not fair because Mom told me so and I know that every society will include the ‘poor’ because Jesus said so, so I don’t envision the end of poverty in our generation, or really ever. In some cases, sincere but misguided efforts to help have actually made things worse; as one (even more cynical than me) soul observed, “if government foreign aid worked, Africa would be the most advanced continent on earth.” Ouch.
I worry that our pursuit of happiness as a nation has made us selfish as individuals. Our political system, our marketing industry, and at times even our churches cheer us on as we fight and compete to get ‘our fair share,’ whether the prize is tax dollars or a bigger ski boat or the choice of which songs we sing on Sunday. I fear that I have often been so consumed with winning that I have overlooked those on whom life has not smiled as brightly, and at times I have benefited in ways that harmed them.
To paraphrase James 2:
Suppose a man has no medical care or insurance or food. If you tell him, “Have a great day. Good health and long life to you my friend,” what good is that? Your so-called faith is a putrefying corpse.
I worry that “Good health and long life to you” may have been my perspective. Like you, I can find a dozen practical reasons not to help Americans who lack the most basic of the basics (starting with “it’s incredibly expensive and would raise my taxes”), and only two decent reasons to actually do something: first, it’s what a decent, compassionate human being would do, and second, the Bible repeatedly tells us to. There’s also that whole Golden Rule thing, which is nice in principle but a real pain in practice.
There is a fundamental battle being fought in this country right now, not between Democrats and Republicans (who have all become so concerned with capturing votes that they won’t propose anything meaningful), but between perspectives. It involves issues we would rather not discuss, and topics we would be happier ignoring, and it has taken me three months to finish this post because I find it so difficult to write about.
You may not want to read my next post, because we are wading into politics and class warfare and other uncomfortable topics where Christians are behaving more like self-centered Americans than like selfless followers of Christ, so you have my blessing to just skip that if it makes you uncomfortable. Come back in next Friday and I promise you a happy post about my nephew dog Messi and how pets make us happy; or come back Tuesday and watch the fireworks.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. 1 John 4
(to be continued)
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