(you can read this for some background on today’s unusually serious post)
In 2002, I received a brief letter from my health insurance company thanking me for my business and canceling my family’s policy. Ninety days later my family would be uninsured, and, due to our son’s serious medical issues, uninsurable. We were living on my graduate school stipend (a modern day version of indentured servitude) and for the first time in our lives were confronted with the reality faced by a sizable chunk of the US population: the simplest way to go bankrupt in America today is to get sick while you are uninsured. In our case, the bills included tens of thousands of dollars per surgery, plus countless other ongoing costs.
While Laura and I were forced to fend for ourselves with a stingy ‘disaster policy,’ our kids were the fortunate beneficiaries of a decision in Oklahoma to make sure children had access to medical care, even if their parents did not. I suspect the legislature there did not have PhD students in mind when they passed this, but we joined the ranks of ‘those people’ who could not pay their bills, and signed our kids up for Medicaid.
Two things you need to know. First, this was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. There is such a stigma attached to Medicaid and similar programs that I did it only because we had no other choice. While people ‘on the dole’ are often viewed as freeloaders who just want to work the system, many are not–they are just folks who have been unlucky, like we were. Second, the only reason this option was available to us was that somebody in Oklahoma City and/or Washington D.C. had decided that providing basic medical care was more important than building another highway or cutting taxes or purchasing a new bomber. In real life, there are no magic fixes, and every dollar spent on kids like ours means one less dollar to spend elsewhere. I am eternally grateful that the Sooner State found its heart on this one, despite the pain in the pocketbook it must have caused in a state where budgets are often stretched paper-thin. We remained financially solvent solely by the grace of the great state of Oklahoma. Go Pokes!
One of the few ‘burdens’ that comes with the kind of wonderfully unfair (privileged) life I have enjoyed is a responsibility to help those whose lives have also been unfair, but in exactly the opposite way from mine. American citizens have more input and more say than most in how the rules of the game are set and enforced, and that gives us a responsibility for the choices we make, particularly when we vote. The ‘system,’ if you will, has worked wonderfully well for me, and I believe that makes me responsible to try to make it work equally well for others.
This idea runs headlong against what we as individualistic people want to believe, but it echoes one of the most basic concepts taught by Christianity, and interestingly, by many other religious traditions:
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Christianity)
- Choose for your neighbor what you would choose for yourself (Bahai faith)
- Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you (Brahmanism)
- One should seek for others the happiness one desires for oneself (Buddhism)
- Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence (Confucianism)
- None of you truly believes, until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself (Islam)
- Love your neighbor as you love yourself (Judaism)
- All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves (Native American spirituality)
I have rarely looked at an election ballot or a political proposal with any perspective beyond one: “Is this good for me and how will I benefit?”At times I fear I have removed my Christian hat and donned my capitalist hat before entering the voting booth.
So here is my simple proposal to you: if your life has been unfair in the same positive way that mine has, recognize that; ingratitude must surely be among the ugliest of human traits. Second, when you get the chance to vote, vote, and when you do, ask yourself whether the (privileged) candidates you are considering understand all this or not, and refuse to vote for any candidate (of any party) who does not get it. And if there is an issue that might help someone else, possibly even at your expense, consider supporting it, especially if it makes the world a tiny bit ‘worse’ for you and a lot better for the other person (say for example if it means your highway will be rougher, but someone else’s child won’t die for lack of medical care, or someone else’s grandmother will have lunch provided by Meals on Wheels). The ‘system’ is designed by people mostly like me, to benefit people mostly like me (and most of you) so a little effort on our part to help others won’t put any of us out on the street.
Going forward I plan to vote according to the Golden Rule, and not for the candidate who promises to deliver me the gold, which seems to be the most common pledge made in our political system today.
Jesus said we should count the cost, so let me lay it out for you: we talk a good game about voting with our dollars, and spending ethically, right up to the point where it costs us money. People consistently say they want to support ethical companies, but in lab studies they won’t spend any more to do so. People say they want to buy products made in America, but they will pay only a minuscule amount more to get them. I don’t know anyone who would say they are against helping people get basic medical care or helping bilingual children learn to read…but I know many who will fight a tax hike required to make these things happen. What I am proposing will be expensive and it’s going to require money for a long time, and that is the cost. Sadly Jesus never said “Love your neighbor if it’s convenient or cheap,” and to help make his point he let a bunch of people nail his hands and feet to a board.
Since the dawn of time, kings and dictators and Communist party leaders and titans of industry have been well taken care of, regardless of the cost to society, because the people in charge make the rules, and they have all sung the praises of their societies and how advanced they are. But SOCIETIES ARE NOT DEFINED BY HOW THEY TREAT THE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL. SOCIETIES ARE DEFINED BY HOW THEY TREAT THE POOR AND THE POWERLESS. By this standard of love, America is a far less “Christian” nation today than many others that possess far fewer church buildings.
Jesus and his Old Testament crew talked a lot more about how we treat the poor and the homeless than about most of the issues our politicians (and many of our churches) obsess over today. His people were specifically warned not to mistreat foreigners living among them. If your church or synagogue or mosque is not taking steps to actively help the poor, help make that happen, and if they can’t find a way to do that, find another group who will. For that matter, when you go to the store, park your car further out; the walk will be good for you and the closer spot will be nice for the person who gets it. Hopefully it will be me…. 😉
I write every week about how to find happiness in your life. But if I were one of the less fortunate in America today I would be terrified by a government that seems hell-bent on spending more money than it has, which leads to inflation, which hurts the poor far more than the rich. I would be worried about policy proposals in education, healthcare, and immigration that are poised to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. I would feel powerless because Congressmen spend hours and hours every week in call centers raising money for their next campaign, and I am certain none of them are calling people like me because I have nothing to donate. And I would look at the people around me and think, “My life has been really unfair.” And I would be right.
Today I consider myself a man without a political party. The two majors look increasingly alike to me, and the 5 million people who voted last year for the Green and Libertarian parties (a huge number of protest votes) suggests that I am not alone. Our culture is all about ‘me’ and I am looking for candidates, of any party or no party at all, who will try to make the system better for ‘the least of these,’ not in quick or gimmicky or high profile ways, but in the dirty, grungy long-term, expensive ways that actually matter. I plan to vote for these people, despite the fact that in our current environment many of them seem unelectable. Any candidate who runs on a platform of gutting the medical safety net for the poor to fund tax cuts, or cutting education so we can grow a military budget that is already larger than the next eight countries combined will not get my vote because I have to look God in the eye someday and explain why, as the ‘ruler’ of this nation, I handed control to men and women who promised me that is what they would do. Why do I say this? Because I have been the poor, and it is utterly terrifying to be a father and be unsure how to provide the basics of life for your children. If you cannot identify with this fear, on at least some level, I pity you.
If your has been unfairly fortunate like mine, I hope you appreciate that. If you have lived on ‘the right side of the tracks’ all your life I encourage you to venture outside and see what ‘real life’ in America is like. I intend for the second half of my life to focus on choices and actions that make others’ lives better. Frankly, I think that is what Jesus was expecting when he said “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
And, amazingly, you just may find that choosing to help others makes you much happier than constantly seeking your own happiness.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (the Dalai Lama)
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