Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nothing Left to Lose

Where do you stand on consequences? As in suffering the consequences for our choices. Does your answer depend on who is doing the suffering? For most of us, I think the answer is yes. The closer to home, the harder it is to resist stepping in to save the imprudent one.

Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
Our children are the best examples, of course. We keep them out of trouble for so long that it becomes a hard habit to break. We know they can’t grow and learn fully without making their own mistakes, but still… Fortunately for domestic tranquility, about the time they become the most reckless they go off to college or run away from home so we can’t see what they are doing. Thank goodness for that.

But what should a parent do if a child who is no longer a child never quits making bad choices? Should we make up his bed in the spare bedroom? Should we drive him to detox? Should we pay for it? And does the answer depend not just on how much we care for him but also how hard we think he has been trying?

Those questions can be tough to answer when the reckless person is someone you love. What if you don’t even know her? Should you care if she drinks herself to death or abandons her children or lives on the street?

What made me start thinking about this (again) is an email debate I was copied on about whether it would be a good idea to make social security optional. The first question that jumped to my mind was: What do we do about the people who opt out and end up destitute? Do we just let them suffer? Tough luck, mate. You should have been wiser when you were young.

Sometimes it seems we are in the middle of another American Revolution. A surprisingly large number of people despise the government. They long, in Grover Norquist’s words, to shrink it down to the size that it can be drowned in the bathtub. They even call themselves the Tea Party.

Our last revolution (not counting that little squabble over slavery) was to rid ourselves of an exploitive monarch. This uprising feels more like we’re trying to toss out Mary Poppins. Instead of “No Taxation Without Representation,” the rallying cry is “No Nanny State.”

What would we do if we got our wish? Without all those tacky taxes, we’d all have more to spend on our favorite charity: ourselves. Then what? Some of us would be fine. Many would not. Are they just lazy and shiftless? Will they just be getting what they deserve?

The healthcare debate raises the same issue. We hate the mandate, but if we don’t all pay into the kitty there won’t be enough to take care of everyone. Is that okay? Is survival of the fittest really what we want?

So many young people love Ron Paul. That shouldn’t be a big surprise. They are breaking away from their parents. They are libertarians to their cores. They aren’t unkind, though. They help old ladies across the street. They wouldn’t ignore a plea for help from a man who had been stabbed and was bleeding on the sidewalk. What would we think of them if they would? That they were heartless and cruel. Maybe sociopaths. No one steps over a dying man and keeps on walking.

All over the world there are people who are starving and sick. Maybe we can’t help them all, but if we are to call ourselves a nation and have that mean anything it seems to me we must help our fellow countrymen. Does it matter how they came to their misery? How can we know whether they have made poor choices or just had bad luck? How can we know the life of another? We only know what we see, and when we see suffering, if we are to retain our humanity, mustn’t we act to relieve it?

We yearn to be free. Of parents. Of government. Of lovers sometimes. But, as Janice Joplin told us (in Kris Kristofferson’s words): Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. That’s about as nice a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard. It’s wistful and sad, but it’s also inspirational. Without our ties to one another, there’s not much point to living.

And those ties don’t stop with friends and family, even if we’d like to think they do. They extend to those farthest away from us, to the weakest among us. We are all our own children. Sure, we may get frustrated with their bad behavior, disgusted even, but can we walk away from them? Do we want to be that free? Do we want to have nothing left to lose?


  1. >if we are to call ourselves a nation and have that mean anything it seems to me we must help our fellow countrymen

    I do think this is the kind of thing that in small town early America happened more organically (well, unless you were a witch). But it is so much harder to imagine as an individual how to help when faced with even the number of homeless on the street in affluent neighborhoods like Palo Alto. Obviously our social safety nets don't catch everyone, but it's hard to imagine where we would be if all of our aid were dependent on generous hearts, especially in difficult financial times when there are limits to what even the most generous of hearts can give. I'm raising my hand for not wanting to be any freer, and in fact for wanting to be less free if it would mean, say, more kids would be better educated, or get better health care, or better nutrition.

  2. I'm sure we all want everyone to do well. But we've never spent more money per individual, and yet I've never seen our country more collectively dispirited.
    There's a psychological component to this we're not addressing. Those on the receiving end feel more and more helpless the longer the help continues. I'm not sure what the answer is.

  3. Meg, Can you explain what you mean by being "less free", and how that can translate into a better educated child. I don't see the connection.

  4. Mac, I have to add, I don't think freedom in the conservative context means selfish non-collaborative pursuits, just the ability to work autonomously.
    By the way, you could probably pick better examples than Janis and Kris to float your 'freedom is overrated" theory.
    Janis died of a drug overdose at age twenty seven, and Kris was sucking down a fifth a day for writing inspiration. I can tell you, the average alcoholic can become a virtuoso at mental twists and rationalizations. When you're completely dependent on something, it's not unusual to tell yourself that independence (freedom) is overrated, while quietly, desparately praying to be free of the bondage. Big government is just another form of bondage. Be glad you haven't yet been bound by either. If you ever are, I don't think you'll take freedom for granted again.