Friday, January 21, 2011

Compassion (And The Lack Thereof)

Before my community choir's Christmas concert last month, our director sent out an e-mail noting that there was an empty food donation box for a local charity near the door of the venue where we were going to perform—a museum of sorts that doesn't get much business in the winter—and he asked us to encourage our family and friends who were going to hear us sing to bring a couple of non-perishable food items to the concert and donate them.  (For this charity, people donate toys, non-perishable foods and the like and the organization distributes them to people who wouldn't otherwise be able to have these at Christmas.)  When I left that night, I noticed that the box was overflowing and a couple of large cardboard boxes held even more food donations.

A few hours after my grandfather died, most of my family got together for breakfast at the local restaurant where I've been ordering pizza at least once a month for the past six or seven years. I got there late because I fell asleep again after I'd heard that everyone was meeting, but I got there in time to have a cup of tea.  When I went to pay, the person who'd served my tea told me that he'd already taken care of it.  It was a small act of kindness, but I will always remember it and be grateful to him for it.

Things like this give me hope—they're a sign that for all that's happened to the world, there are still people around who care about what happens to others and who try to make things a bit better for those less fortunate than themselves.

But just as there are things that give me hope, there are many—oh, so many—that can and will take it away, such as some news I read last month from my neighbours to the South: apparently poor people only need to eat once a month.  Lovely, isn't it, how some people like to pretend that a month's allocation of food stamps will stretch to a huge, decadent meal every day for a month just because they personally burned through a month's worth of food stamps in one day? *sigh*  It's like they don't think that poor people need to survive on what can be purchased with those things for a whole month at a time.  Like they think that poor people have a special metabolism that will allow them to survive on one large meal per month.

Actually, sometimes I suspect that it's not so much that they don't know/care/realize that even poor people need nutritious food to survive, as they simply don't care if poor people survive.  Just like the oh-so-compassionate folks who think it's perfectly fine that the parents of a baby who needs a $500,000 transplant in order to survive would have had to see their child suffer and die of a treatable disease if it hadn't been for an insurance company who approached them and said they'd cover it, since the surgery is so unreasonably costly and Medicaid won't pay for it thanks to budget cuts, claiming that it's an experimental procedure despite its proven success rate (73%) and the fact that it was first performed nearly eighteen years ago.

"Experimental," my foot.

In the comments to the first story, people were calling this an example of what socialized medicine will do, all the while ignoring the fact that this is actually an example of what for-profit health care always does!  When your medical system is run on a for-profit basis, the people with the most money will always be able to access the care they need, but without help, those who are less fortunate will often find it difficult, if not absolutely impossible, because the prices are so high.  And this is something that the current incarnation of the so-called "Grand Old Party" will never protest—as we've seen by the Republican-controlled House's decision to repeal last year's new health-care law.  I know it's probably just a symbolic thing, as the Senate is unlikely to allow it, but it's offensive just the same because it shows exactly how much the Republicans don't care about anyone who's not filthy rich.

If you can't pay for something that will save your life, then you'll just have to die.  Oh, and if you didn't plan ahead for that $500,000 operation that most kids don't need, you shouldn't have had the kid in the first place!  But we'd still have fought against any attempt to abort the kid because abortion is evil and every life is sacred until it's actually born.

Yes, that's definitely the moral high ground here.  For a party that's overwhelmingly populated by people who identify as Christians of one stripe or another, they do seem to be particularly willing to ignore a great many of their own religious teachings, including this passage from the first letter of John:

How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
—1 John 3:17-18

Mind you, these days it doesn't look like the Democrats are much better, especially given Obama's tendency to roll over and play dead whenever the Republicans tell him to, in the name of bipartisanship.  (Here's a hint: trying to play nice with an enthusiastic and unrepentant bully never works out well for you.  It didn't in the schoolyard, and it won't in politics either.)  Given how much influence the United States still has on the rest of the world, I am—quite frankly—a bit worried about what this means for the rest of us.  Particularly my own country, because our Conservative government apparently holds many of the same ideals as the Republicans do, and I suspect that the only reason they haven't turned Canada into Bush Regime Version 2.0 is the fact that they're a minority government* and so don't quite have the power they'd need to do it.


You know, for all that there are multimillionaires who donate what most of us think of as large amounts of money to charity, it seems to me that most of the real compassion comes from those who don't have quite as much money but who have a conscience that not only won't let them not do something to help other people, but who actually enjoy doing it.  It's not about giving "free rides" to people who don't want to contribute to society.  It's about the fact that one way or another, sooner or later most people do need a helping hand whether or not it's their own fault.  And the only way we can really consider ourselves to be moral or even just plain good people is to lend that helping hand when and where we can.  After all, we're all in this together.

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*Our election style isn't so much "winner takes all" as "the winner is the one with the most votes for their individual party, but if the other parties have, between themselves, a greater percentage of the vote, you'd better keep them happy because if you don't they could gang up on you and form a government of their own, thus booting you from power, or force another election."  The Conservatives received only 37.6% of the popular vote in our last election, but because that was a greater percentage than any one of the other Federal parties, their Federal leader, Stephen Harper, is our Prime Minister.  In the past couple of years, the Liberals (usually fairly moderate, really), the New Democratic Party (about as left-wing as we get up here—unless you count the Green Party—but still fairly moderate) and the Bloc Québécois (a sort-of centre-left party who want Quebec to secede from the rest of Canada, which would be a Really Bad Idea for everyone in practice, but which they think is a great idea in theory) have indeed threatened the Harper government with a coalition government or a forced election several times.  Funny, though, they never actually follow through on those threats...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Defining "Normal"

It's hardly a revelation that there are as many definitions of "normal" as there are people who use the word. In all actuality, it's become quite a cliché, hasn't it?  We're all different.  We're all individuals.  Even those who do their best to conform, to not stand out in the crowd, will have a certain amount of of individualism, even if it's only a tiny shred.

What got me thinking about all this, actually, is the fact I recently had a particularly bad cold. "Bad" as in monstrous coughing fits, headaches, a dry, sore throat (and the almost complete loss of my voice, which is particularly frustrating for people like me who absolutely love to sing; fortunately my vocal range is now almost back to what it usually is) and loss of stamina to the point where a bit of exertion would absolutely wind me—an unpleasant feeling at best, especially as my usual walking pace is quite brisk.  And my resting heart rate, which is generally somewhere in the low 60's—probably because singing and playing the bagpipes both involve the intake and expulsion of a lot of air that my body doesn't really get the chance to use, so I've adapted over the years—was frequently somewhere in the 80's.  Normal for most people, but for me it's somewhat annoying and not exactly comfortable.  I notice it when my heart rate is faster than usual, and I don't like being aware of my heartbeat without paying any unusual amount of attention to it.  It's distracting.

And, as these things tend to do, given my strange little mind, it made me think a little about the nature of normality.

The older I get, actually, the more I come to believe that we all live in our own realities; even if some aspects of those realities are shared, "the world as it is" will always mean different things to different people.  On a physical level, to me "the world as it is" currently involves a lot of snow and ice—a product of the cold and sometimes harsh Northern Ontario winters I've experienced every year of my life since I was born.  (I didn't have to wait long for my first winter, by the way; I was born in early November.)  From what I'm seeing on my statistics page, some of you who read this blog will be able to sympathize on that account; others, less so.

On a mental level, "the world as it is" also involves a fair amount of uncertainty, since I'm currently unemployed and looking for work that, even if I don't love it, won't make my life unbearable.  (I'm a teacher by training and inclination, but the education job market isn't great in Canada right now, and for a number of reasons I don't have the option of leaving at the moment.)  It also involves recovery from depression and a particularly vile eating disorder that's made more difficult than usual to recover from because I actually am fat, so certain behaviours and attitudes that would be recongnized as dangerous in a thin person are actively encouraged in me.  Fortunately, it also involves a sense of humour, a loving family (drawn closer by the death of my grandfather and our shared concern for my grandmother), friends in real life and online—and yes, I do believe that online friendships do count, though that's a rant for another day—and a spiritual life that's becoming richer, more surprising and more fulfilling all the time.  And tea.  As far as I'm concerned, there really is nothing quite as relaxing as a good cup of tea after a long day.  Again, some of you will be able to identify with some of these things, and some of you will not.

What we see, do, hear about and feel most often will become what is normal for us.  (I'm reminded of an incident in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in which Offred, the narrator, realizes that although makeup, revealing clothing and high-heeled shoes had been part of her life before the formation of the Republic of Gilead, when she saw a Japanese tourist wearing them they looked strange to her after she'd been subject to the Republic's strict sumptuary laws for a number of years.)  There's nothing wrong with that, comparisons with an imaginary dystopian society quite aside.  The problem comes when we think that what's normal to us ought to be normal for everyone.  There's not much that should be normal to everybody, and those things are things like dignity, companionship, medical care, consistent access to good food, good water and good shelter, and the opportunity to do something meaningful with our lives.  Beyond that, I question this need that so many people apparently have to make their normal into everyone else's.  To stick their noses into other people's health, sex lives, social lives, eating habits, excercise habits, tastes in literature (or lack thereof), favourite TV shows (or lack thereof), income level, choice of neighbourhood, language (and dialect), clothing choices, and so on, and arrogantly say that what they personally prefer is superior to another choice in some way, so everyone should prefer it.

And don't get me started on the harmful stereotypes we're so often exposed to regarding people with mental problems—especially in the aftermath of the recent shooting in Arizona which killed several people and put several others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, into the hospital.  As someone recovering from depression, and who has a severely autistic cousin and a good friend who's obsessive-compulsive, I find those stereotypes to be particularly loathsome.  You don't have to be insane to kill people, and not everyone who's not neurotypical will be driven to violence.  Got it?  I hope so.


For all that so many of us hold "normal" up as a sort of Holy Grail to which all of us should aspire, "normal" is a profoundly subjective word.  As far as I'm concerned, we should stop focusing so much on what's "normal" and start focusing on working together no matter what "normal" means to us.  No matter how isolated you think you are from the world, what you do affects other people, and what other people do affects you.  I don't think that's a profound revelation or anything—it's just life.

But who am I to say?  After all, that kind of thinking is what's normal to me.