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Monday, February 6, 2017

Ladies Bountiful and Women in Need

Women's Health Day, up at the old hospital in Northport, started as an ordinary, pleasant, welcome annual event. It filled an important need. On that day uninsured and underinsured women in Leelanau County could receive a free health checkup, including mammogram. Health care was the object, but somehow it was a fun morning! Half the town was there, all ages, and it felt very egalitarian and social. There was nothing embarrassing about it. It was like going to vote, except that people had time to chat in the waiting room.

Then one year it was taken over by a large group of volunteers, women who had no need of the services but a great need to be needed. They put on a big brunch spread and then, having really nothing more to do but not wanting to feel useless, went around the room urging the women who had come for their checkups to avail themselves of the buffet. They themselves were not going to the buffet; nor were they in need of free checkups. Medical attention and food were for the others

For the first time, the event was structured by class: on one hand there was the host of ladies bountiful, on the other a crowd of women in need. Those of us who came for the checkup, the supplicants, were dressed casually, many in blue jeans, while the ladies bountiful were set apart in dresses and heels. The fun was gone! The following year I skipped the whole thing. Now the hospital is gone, and so is the event.

I bring it up because of something that concerns me with many do-good projects. So often, in a way, the volunteers are as needy as the recipients of the bounty to be distributed. The givers need projects and purpose and meaning in their lives. They need to feel needed and need to give and need to be recognized as givers. But they don't usually see themselves as needy. They do see themselves, in a helping context. Do they, I wonder, always see those they are so eager to help? 

I don't mean to ignore or deny the genuine humanitarian impulse. It's good to want to do good in the world, and doing good probably needs to be encouraged and, yes, rewarded, too! I'm also sure it's easiest for all of us to see ourselves in positive roles, wherever we are in life, and hardest to see others differently situated in as positive a guise. I don't mean to point fingers. Really. 

But if you think about it for a minute, you know, whatever your station and condition in life, that it can be a lot harder to receive than to give. And when only one group is acknowledged as givers, the other defined as beneficiaries, a dynamic set up: the first group is one-up, the second one-down. And so, while what's given is helpful in one way, it can be destructive in other ways. 

This is a digression, but one of the most memorable lessons life ever gave me was in the example of a friend who suffered severe physical trauma, losing much of the ordinary health and strength the fortunate among us take for granted every day. After the incident that nearly took her life, and after a long, painful period of recuperation, my friend, unable drive a car and without not stamina to walk to and stand at a bus stop, was dependent on friends to drive her to the grocery store. Once there she needed to tour the store in a motorized chair. She needed someone to carry her groceries out to the car and into her house. She needed a lot of help. And yet – this was the miracle and the lesson – she never expressed pity for herself, never apologized for needing help, and neither did she demand assistance in a resentful or autocratic way. She was natural about it all, graciously graceful. It was just the way things were, and we were friends, and we did things together. That was all. And so the way she received the help she needed was a gift she gave to us, her friends. Not many people could pull that off! I doubt I could ever do it with her grace, but if I am ever in a similar position, I hope I will remember her example and try!

I feel uniquely positioned in Leelanau County, with a foot in each camp, not a full-fledged member of either group. For twenty years, before eligible for Medicare, I went without health insurance (Women's Health Day was a godsend to me!), and I have no retirement pension waiting for me down the road. But by education and as a local business owner for nearly a quarter of a century, I am at least a nominal member of the privileged group. 

I understand the desire to help and to give, as well as the need for recognition. My own charitable giving means a lot to me, I am very careful about causes I choose to support, and I wish I could do more. At the same time, I also know, from not having had health insurance for so long and being still unable to sign blank checks for expensive health care, the sting of being designated as "needy," when I work very hard to be independent and provide for myself!

None of this is meant as criticism of any individuals or groups. I “bring it to the table” because the people around the table are generally in the bountiful givers group, and that's no accident. They are the ones with free time, and they are also the ones who feel comfortable and welcome at the table. They are seen as – and feel themselves as -- belonging there.

But those not at the table are "stake-holders," too. They have a stake in the economic wellbeing of their community, in the education provided for their children, and in being recognized as community members.

I don't see inviting the two groups to the table together, however, as the solution or even the beginning of a solution. 

So what is??? 

I suspect a "solution" to the gap in class and need may be something no group can invent, regardless how many hours are spent brainstorming. Maybe it just takes one-on-one conversations, in casual encounters, with a lot more listening on both sides. It might also take, for every single one of us -- me, included! -- looking into our own hearts and being honest with ourselves about what we see there.

What will we find? Then, what will we do with what we find? I don't know.

Sorry this is inconclusive. I have no recipe to offer, only my perspective from the gap, from the social chasm, between rich and poor.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Opposing Forces: Battling the ‘Other’

“I don’t like ‘us vs. them’ talk,” she wrote. Nor do I. Yet there are times when the world seems to array itself into opposing sides.

Does it have to be that way? Couldn’t we all just get along? Be respectful, listen to one another, consider the possibility that we, our side, might be mistaken – or at least that there’s more to think about?

I’m not willing to give up on facts, i.e., that they exist and need to be faced. Does that alone put me on one side of the current political battle?

One undeniable fact seems to be that many human beings (though not all) thrive on battle. Whether the fight is physical, intellectual, emotional or commercial, warriors would be bored without it. They push away the sweet, smooth custard of civility and demand raw bones, with plenty of gristle – your bones, if you’re available for enemy status, that is, if you question their authority or rank or opinion or course of action. Because someone has to be the enemy. A warrior will happily risk breaking his own teeth for the pleasure of a chance to sharpen them on your bones.

When a warrior declares you to be the Other and refuses to acknowledge or admit commonality, and when the stakes of the disagreement are high, what can one do but join in battle?

I’d rather not. Despite a background in academic philosophy, adversarial as it is (arguments, objections, refutations, etc.), I am happier not having to fight for a place to stand. Living is hard enough without that! There are plenty of struggles inherent in daily life: age, cold, ice, gravity, survival!

Even if one looks at contest in terms of excitement and stimulation, something one desires rather than desires to avoid, battling the Other is not the only possible way for human beings to challenge themselves. Other ways to look at self-challenges might include:

Self-improvement: This can mean anything from education to overcoming a weakness or moral flaw to building body mass. Possibilities are endless, and challenges can be as difficult as you want to make them.

Wilderness challenge: Into this category would fall projects like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail or climbing a mountain or surviving alone in the desert for a predetermined length of time. Again, endless possibilities.

Personal best: In whatever a person already excels, there is usually a chance to improve, and when age rules out marathon running, substitute endeavors can be found.

In short, we can challenge ourselves rather than an Other. ‘Challenge’ does not have to mean getting in the ring and punching another person. Pursuit of an elusive ideal can be a lifelong challenge.

Why, though, might this not inspire a pugnacious warrior?

Well, some of the challenges I’ve suggested are invisible, and meeting them brings no medals, no ribbons, no applause. Often no one else will care at all, even if the struggle is visible in principle. (Climbing a mountain is not an invisible inner struggle, but the mountain is indifferent to the climber's success. The mountain does not applaud the climber.) If someone is after purely extrinsic rewards, recognition will always be essential to satisfaction.

Moreover, even where there is a cheering audience – say, for the successful marathon runner -- certain kinds of personalities will only be satisfied when able to dominate other human beings. In “the thrill of victory,” for many, half that thrill is reducing the Other to “the agony of defeat.”

And so, reluctantly, against my burrowing, bookish, retiring badger nature, I find myself this already difficult winter season enjoined in a battle I never chose. I am part of the Other, because almost every public good I hold dear is under fire – environmental protection, public education, equality, workers’ rights and protections, freedom of speech and assembly, legal precedent. The very idea of a common good is held in disdain.
And I am not going to “get over it,” not going to shut up and retreat and listen and watch quietly from a corner while the values I love and dismantled and the country I love rebuilt to an ugly blueprint I never thought I’d see here. 

If I did not stand up against what’s going on now, how could I claim to be for anything at all?