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Our nation is in a time of uncertainty. Our economy has been rapidly shifting as we become part of the global economy; our political representatives cannot agree on the path to take forward; we fear a falling standard of living. Where is comfort in all of this?
These are difficult times for our country, our nation. We get to say that every ten or twenty years.
Even when we as a nation have had good times, even when our economy was growing and unemployment was low–times like the 1990’s—there were individuals who were suffering either economically or physically. And in speaking of our general problems today I do not want to overlook the suffering of individuals that continues.
There are some hard truths about our nation.
Our nation’s manufacturing base has largely moved overseas.
Although the recession technically ended in 2009, the unemployment rate is still over 9% and is stagnant.
Our poverty rate has risen to 15.1%.
Our child poverty rate is 22%.
The poverty rate for African Americans has increased to 27.4%.
The number of people without health care insurance has risen to 49.9 million.
And it appears that government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will be pared back, meaning much less security for the sick, the poor and for frail seniors.
Median income has declined.
Women still make less money per hour than men, and the income of male workers has now (taking inflation into account) declined to less than it was in 1968. And, along with that decline in income, workers have to pay more for pension plans and health insurance and all across the country have had bargaining rights stripped away from them.
The United Auto Workers union has recently agreed to a two-tier wage system where new workers will be paid at a lower rate than previous workers; the fear is that this will become permanent and that all wages for all workers will be lower in the future.
And so there is a growing fear that the American standard of living will only decline further over the coming years.
Meanwhile, our political leaders–and we ourselves–are divided over how to respond to these changes.
In times of economic trouble or of personal difficulty we are reminded about how little control we have over much of life. The easy assumption that if we just work hard and follow the rules then all will be well can fall apart in the face of reality.
No matter how good a worker we are individually, if our company goes bankrupt we are out of work. No matter how good a business owner and operator we are if people stop buying our goods, we go out of business.
People who worked hard all of their lives, people who did all of the right things and were promised pensions and health care in their retirement now find themselves with the realization that these were empty or are only half filled promises. And for many of those people it is too late to start over again; they do not have another forty years to build a pension plan. And some are incapable of getting a job that provides health insurance.
People who take care of their bodies, who exercise and eat right, can still fall prey to illness or accident.
Where do we look for help in such times?
If our own individual actions cannot be counted upon to get us what we want; if we are, indeed, in the power of things far greater than ourselves, then what are we to do?
First, if we are healthy and have a job, we can give thanks that we are so fortunate, we can recognize that each of these is a temporary status that can change at any moment, and we can refrain from judgment against those who are unemployed or are sick. There but for fortune go you and I.
One of the worst things that has happened in this nation over the past few years is an over-emphasis on “personal responsibility”. I believe in personal responsibility as one element in an array of responsibilities, including the responsibility of society to help the poor, the sick the homeless the hungry. But the doctrine of personal responsibility has become a means of denying compassion to those who do not or cannot succeed in one way or another. It has become a means of saying, if you are out of work, if you are poor, if you are sick, it is your fault. All too often we blame the victim. There are things that we as individuals can do to change the likelihood that we will become unemployed or that we will become sick. If no one smoked cigarettes there would be fewer cases of lung cancer, stroke, emphysema and other diseases. But there would still be lung cancer and stroke and emphysema. We can take certain steps that lower the likelihood that we will end up suffering, but we cannot guarantee that we will not suffer.
People can do all of the right things and still end up living in poverty and without health insurance. It is morally outrageous to blame people and even punish them for things that are beyond their control. And even in those cases where someone did all of the wrong things and ended up sick or impoverished, that is no excuse for us to withhold empathy, compassion and help.
So, those of us who are for now employed and healthy should be grateful and should extend out compassion towards others.
What if we are not employed, or not fully employed, or are sick or hurting in some other way: Where is our help then?
Government action cannot be depended upon, bus some government programs are functioning.
Private organizations cannot keep pace with the growing need, though some help is available.
Our primary of strength come from three places: Community; the Divine and ourselves.
Other Community gives strength. A few weeks ago Genie and I were waiting in line at a toll booth along the Mass pike. There were a few large metal structures, electrical wires and light poles on one side of the highway. And these were covered with birds. The birds were twittering and chittering and making all kinds of cheery noises. Every once in a while a small group of them would fly from one spot to another and there would be an outburst of “hellos” and “welcomes”. They were preparing to migrate down south as the weather changes. In the spring they fly north together up, then they split up and go their different ways, then they come back together again to travel south for winter.
Why go in a flock? Why not travel alone? Because there is strength in the flock. Birds flying in flocks encourage one another to keep going, to keep flying, to keep on striving to get to the goal, whatever the goal may be. That encouragement is powerful.
They join together for the most difficult parts of the year; their travels north and south. That they do in community. Community is valuable; community gives strength; community gives power. The one that is tired receives energy from the one that is not tired as they travel along together.
Whatever our community may be it is important, whether it is religious congregation or a network of friends or a support group; that community may not get us a job or cure our physical diseases, but it will give us encouragement, strength and power as we face those ills. Community may not cure disease, but it can heal our souls.
I also believe in the power of divinity, whatever that may be for you, even if you are—like me–a Humanist. By “divinity” I mean God, the Goddess, the Cosmos whatever for you is higher power or ultimate truth. And I believe in prayer. Whether prayer is used to ask for healing or for strength or is just the act of releasing problems to the universe, I believe that, like community, prayer works. It gives serenity and hope and the ability to take the next step that one thought was impossible. Some will say it works because it calls up unknown strengths from within ourselves; some will say it works because some divine being responds with healing power. I don’t care why it works; I only know that I believe it does work. Prayer by one’s self or prayer with others or prayers by others, or prayer for others, it doesn’t matter. Prayer works.
I also believe in actions by the individual; and that can seem contradictory since I earlier stated that some things are beyond our power to control. That is true. But that does not mean we should yield to despair or inaction.
I believe that I should act, that I should do my best, but should do so without judging myself for the outcome!
That is not the American way. Or the modern way. We like to judge people by their achievements and we like to judge actions by their outcomes. Outcome based evaluation is important in the proper setting. But sometimes in life all I can do is my best.
If I do not have a job, my job is to work to find a job.
If I am sick my job is to do my best to take care of myself so that I get well.
But I should not make the mistake of judging my personal value or my personal culpability by the outcomes of my job search or of my health problems.
If I cannot find a job it is tempting to say, “What is wrong with me?”. If I become sick or am not getting well, it is tempting to say that it is my fault.
I hope I can refrain from abusing myself with blame for that which is beyond my control.
Whatever our theology, I hope that each of us; can say, I am a child of God, God loves me, God wants the best for me, God stands with me as I suffer and holds me as I suffer.
Whatever our personal suffering may be, I hope each of us can say in our hearts: I am loved by the divineothers, I am loved by others, I am worthy of love, and I have a rightful place in this world. So let it be.