The Season of Hope
This is our winter of discontent. The jobless seek a pay check; the almost-homeless pray for a miracle; the indebted seek relief. Throughout the nation and across the globe, human beings are locked in the battle for survival. Yet despite our struggles, this last week signifies a new season of hope for humanity.
Something miraculous happened on the way to the White House this holiday week. Sixty privileged and pampered U.S. senators dragged themselves out on Christmas Eve in the wee hours of the morning to push through historic health care reform.
Many Americans are against the reforms in the current health care bill either because they hold too much or too little change. Yet the miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue is so much more than the bill itself; the debate on healthcare reform represents a shift of consciousness from exclusive self-interest to inclusive world-interest.
Healthcare is an economic issue as we know in America. It costs too much for too little. The only people who benefit from the high costs of care are pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, those who pad the bills to Medicaid and Medicare, and their investors. Everyone else is out on a limb to pay for the outrageously expensive cost of maintaining our bodies.
The healthcare debate has revealed a clear dividing line in the consciousness of the public. The debate cuts across economic classes, genders, ethnicity, and social stratas. We are no longer separated in a battle between haves, have nots or have mores. The debate reveals a clarion call raging through society: The ancient struggle of self-service versus common-good.
Given the painful lessons of the last year, the mood of the nation seems to be shifting from a “what’s in it for me” cultural ethic to a newly emerging ethos of “If I flourish, so should you.” Battle lines are drawn between those afraid to lose what they have and those willing to share their fortune with others. A new day is dawning in America, because compassion for others has won a decisive victory—at least for the moment.
We are good people in this country; kind people, generous perhaps even to a “fault.” Yet fear of suffering can make even the gentlest of souls selfish and indifferent. A newly minted senior citizen, a woman of 65, is adamantly against health care reform. She states her objection to expanding care, “I don’t want a 45 year old to get my MRI.” The sentiment sounds petty and insensitive coming from someone receiving taxpayer supported Medicare. Yet her concerns are real. Would she get the required care needed or would she have to sacrifice her own health for another’s?
Some don’t want to see their already costly healthcare premiums increase. Others don’t want to pay tax on top level care. Still others fear their healthcare will be compromised in service to others. All these are real concerns for ordinary Americans. Some working, some not—all are understandably worried whether their survival and comfort will be threatened by “reform.”
Yet an extraordinary change of heart is underfoot, worthy of the era we find ourselves in: the era of shared concern.
The issues of universal healthcare go far beyond any legislation debated in Congress. The fundamental issue revolves around, “What is our obligation as human beings to care for others?” “Must I sacrifice any part of my comfort or share my good fortune with you?”
The big banks have answered this question this year by plowing ahead with bonuses at the expense of the American taxpayer. If we really believe in “raw survival-of-the-fittest capitalism” we should be okay with this. Yet most of us are adamantly opposed to this inequity.
The Fed Chief states the bailout he himself engineered is “distasteful and unfair;” yet only those who benefited from his actions agree. Anyone struggling financially to survive knows how misguided and undemocratic the 2008-2009 bailout programs truly are.
We have been in an on-going struggle in America since our founding between individualism, our personal sense of freedom, and a broader sense of justice and fair play. “What is our obligation to the greater public and at what cost does that come to ourselves?” is the key question consistently argued in our two century history.
I don’t know the answer for everyone, but for me the answer can be best told through a story. Several years ago I visited an American friend in Brazil. As we sat at an outdoor churrascaria gazing at the crowded sands of Ipanema, content in all our abundant perfection, a little boy of nine or ten peered at me through the restaurant gates. His huge brown eyes hungrily took in the bounty before me. As the waiters brought more food, I said to my friend, “Can we ask him to join us?” My friend seemed annoyed by the question and explained that Rio was not like the U.S. “Orphaned street children are common here,” he said. “You can give them a few coins, but not more than that because if you do you will never get rid of them.”
The callousness of his remark shocked me. I asked, “But we have so much food, can’t we give him some? He looks like he is starving.” My friend shook his head no, made a joke about life’s inequities and detailed the Brazilian social system to me. “People are just used to it here, you can’t help them. This is just the way it is.” My friend and I began a deep discussion on indifference, civic duty, and compassion. All the time the little boy’s eyes stared at the table of food through the gate. The discussion became heated as we both stated our increasingly diverse views. As my friend kept eating and talking, the limitless supply of meats flowing, my appetite and conversation diminished. “How can you eat while this child is starving?” I asked him. He laughed and stuffed a rare piece of Filet Mignon in his mouth and said, “Like this.”
When he got up to go to the restroom I signaled to the child to come and sit down. The boy ran through the gates to the table, only to be intercepted by angry waiters who shooed him away like a fly. The head waiter scolded me harshly for inviting “street urchins” into his restaurant. My friend returned to the chaotic scene embarrassed by my social faux pas and I decided to leave, but not before asking for a “doggie bag.” The waiter refused and I scooped up the meats untouched on my plate into a napkin, handed them to the boy who grabbed them and ran off.
My companion was as repulsed by my actions as I was by his. In my youth I judged him harshly. I left to go back to the States and rarely spoke to him again. In time, I recognized the real issue between us was not as cut and dry as one might suppose- it was the differing ways we viewed the world. I felt an obligation to help those less fortunate in any way I could; he felt he had no obligation to the “world,” only to a select few. His seeming self-interest belied the fact that he was deeply generous to a handful of friends in New York and Brazil. Yet his kindness did not spill over to the greater human population. “I cannot help everyone,” he told me, “and neither can you.”
In the years since, I understand his behavior more than I once did. He was a kind man who could not express that compassion to the greater community without overwhelming himself. That “is just the way it is,” he had told me. His statement marked an apathy and acceptance I did not share. That was the major difference between us more than any innate goodness on my part or his.
He was right of course in his mature wisdom. I cannot help everyone, nor can anyone. But we can do whatever possible to help others without sacrificing ourselves. I told my friend in Rio that it might be the way it is, “but I don’t accept it.” Neither should any of us, accept a status quo of indifference and apathy, not if we hope to create a better world.
While the healthcare bill is as imperfect as we humans are, it marks an important shift from apathy and indifference to shared responsibility. Healthcare in this country is an expensive commodity reserved only for those who are fortunate enough to afford it or old enough to qualify for it.
That might be the way it is, but we don’t have to accept it, because it is just not good enough.
The new vote on Healthcare brings Hope for a less indifferent and more responsible America in the year ahead—one where the basic necessities of life are not considered luxuries meant only for a lucky few.
Happy Holidays from all of us at GoodB.
Monika Mitchell is the Executive Director and Editor-in-chief of Good Business International, Inc. (GoodB). She writes regularly for the Good-B Blog.