Mined from the notebooks, Saturday afternoon, July 14, 2018. Posted Saturday morning, July 28.
A store full of temptations: For some people the temptation is to go in for a gallon of milk and come out with cigarettes and beer. For others the temptation is to go in for a gallon of milk and come out with a candy bar or cookies. For someone we all know in the latter category, the temptation is also to go in for a gallon of milk and make unearned and hypocritical moral judgments while he’s at it. One of our local convenience stores. Saturday, July 14, 2018.
Two weeks ago, Saturday before last, Mrs M had a crowd of visitors. Her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and aunt and uncle all came by the hospital to spend the afternoon and evening with her. I was supposed to take advantage of their providing her company for the day by staying home and working to get the house in shape for her coming home on the following Thursday.
I stayed home.
I didn’t work on getting the house in shape.
I slept in. Until 9. That’s very late for me and was even when life on the Mannionville ranch was more normal. And I took three naps.
I did manage to run a few necessary errands though. One was to the convenience store to pick up milk. There I saw something that caused my inner Republican to rise from his couch in front of the TV and start to rail.
I like having an inner Republican.
I like telling him to shut up and go find a hobby.
Just ahead of me as I entered the store was a tall, broad-shouldered woman with pale blond hair who looked about fifty. A hard fifty. A hard and worn-out and worn-down fifty. Her expression was sullen but seemed to be without real, intense, or specific anger behind it. She was simply not in a good mood and probably had no reason to be. She looked like she didn’t feel good, physically or emotionally or both. Between the first two fingers of her right hand, she held an unlit, half-smoked cigarette that she’d probably stubbed out on her way in and intended to re-light as soon as she’d made her way out.
She wore shorts and a T shirt neither of which looked new or particularly clean, neither of which fit her. The way they didn’t fit her was a way that demanded an anymore. They had grown too small for her or, to put it bluntly, she had grown too big for them. She was big boned, not fat but heavy, carrying more weight than she was built for, and that extra weight wasn’t firm and plump and healthy. It was the bloat of a heavy drinker. Her face had the bruised from within look that alcoholics get too. The vagueness in her eyes and the too careful way she carried herself clinched it for me.
While I grabbed my gallon of milk and took it to stand in line at the register to pay, she drifted in slow circles about the store as if she couldn’t decide if she’d stop first at the cooler where the beer was or in the snack aisle on her way to the counter where she’d buy her cigarettes.
That’s when my inner Republican began to pipe up.
“It’s the middle of the day! What’s wrong with you? You deliberately trying to make a public disgrace of yourself? Can’t you manage even a minimal effort? You like being unhappy? You want to make yourself sick?”
My inner and outer liberal and my inner Catholic and my inner minimally compassionate and would-be decent person ganged up to shout him down.
“What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see she’s got problems? Doesn’t it ever occur to you people are unhappy and in pain through no real fault of their own? Weren’t you raised by the same mother as the rest of us? Weren’t you taught by the same nuns? Didn’t you listen to what they said about kindness?”
My inner Republican looked grumpy but chastened and slunk back to his man-cave to find a ball game on television, muttering that we’d better not ask him to care when her bad living finally caught up with her or expect him to pay her medical bills with his tax dollars.
It’s an especially Republican attitude to look for reasons not to care about strangers’ problems and find them in those strangers being somehow undeserving of the effort. It’s an especially Republican attitude but not a peculiar one. It’s a human one. A defensive reflex against being overwhelmed by all the calls upon our compassion and kindness. Life is a constant parade of people in trouble and in pain. We can’t help everyone who needs our help. Often it’s hard enough to help ourselves. So we do triage. And one of the criteria we use to judge whom to help is to separate those who are worth our trouble from those who aren’t.
I did it myself, reflexively withheld my sympathy from the woman in the convenience store---reflexively dismissed her as undeserving of it the second I recognized her as a drinker. I didn’t consider right away that there was more who she was and that that more might be that she was a good person.
For all I know, she’s a cop or a nurse or a teacher or firefighter or social worker or lawyer who does a lot of pro bono work. She might work for a local charity or non-profit and be the person in the office who really keeps the place running. She might be the person in any sort of office or store or business who keeps the place running. She might be the mainstay of her family or a really good neighbor or a leader of her community. She might do a lot of volunteer work. She might be one of those people who one way or another takes care of everybody around her except herself.
She might be suffering from depression and self-medicating instead of getting professional help and care. She might, like Mrs M, be suffering from hydrocephalus without knowing it and it’s causing her to be unfocused, foggy in her thinking, inattentive, careless of her own needs, impulsive, compulsive, forgetful, exhausted, too tired to think, too tired to resist urges and temptations large and small, too tired to seek help, too tired to be even aware of what is happening to her.
She might just be someone who has worked hard all her life and struggled with the usual human struggles and done her best to lead a decent if not a wholly happy and successful life and it’s worn her out at last.
She might have led a blameless life and it’s just that her troubles and travails---and genetic bad luck---are finally catching up with her, or she might have brought it all on herself. Who am I to judge?
Who am I to judge and withhold my sympathy especially considering how dependent I’ve been the last six months on the sympathy, compassion, generosity, and help of strangers and how much more I’m going to have to depend on them over the course of the next God knows how many months?
We’re all fragile, physically, emotionally, mentally, and morally. We’re all made of the same weak flesh. We’re all subject to temptations and we all give in one or another every day. It’s not trivial to say that while that woman was going to leave the store with cigarettes and beer, it was all I could do to make myself leave with just a gallon of milk. There have been way too many times I’ve gone into a store for just a gallon of milk and come out with a bag of cookies or a box of donuts or a candy bar or two along with the milk and a load of diabetic guilt.
Rick Scott, the convicted criminal who is inexplicably the two-term governor of Florida and is now running as the Republican candidate for the United States Senate against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson has been an opponent of the Affordable Care Act his whole tenure as governor and has done his best to deny as many its benefits as he can to the people of Florida. It’s a given that if he’s elected to the Senate, he’ll do his best to help deny all of its benefits to all the people of the United States. One of the benefits he finds especially obnoxious is one of the ACA’s most popular provisions, guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions at affordable rates. He says he doesn’t like it because it doesn’t reward people for taking care of themselves. This is another way of saying it doesn’t penalize people who don’t take care of themselves, as if people whose cancer had gone into remission but has now returned and metacized or whose congenitally diseased heart finally starts to fail and requires replacement probably brought it on themselves by being careless of their health and don’t deserve to have their treatment paid for at taxpayer expense.
But it’s also a way of saying that someone who is depending on the help of strangers in the form of taxpayers to pay for his diabetes medicine and the regular checkups and eye exams that a smart and sensible diabetic should have if he wants to avoid amputations, blindness, vascular and kidney disease, and other shocks to his system has a responsibility not to cost taxpayers any more than he has to and take care of himself as best he can, and that includes, besides taking his meds, getting those checkups and exams, exercising and not walking out of the convenience store with cookies and donuts, and, boy, does my inner Republican give me an earful about that.
The diabetes specialist at my doctor’s has assured me that’s ok for me to give myself a little treat now and then, but I suspect there’s a pretty big difference between my definition of little and my sense of now and then are different from hers. And even if I’m taking care of myself according to the guidelines, given the vagaries of individual physiologies, it may be that I’m doing myself as much harm with my now-and-then little treats as the woman in the convenience store is doing to herself with her beer and cigarettes, and so I’m just as irresponsible about taking care of myself and just as “undeserving” of help from taxpayers.
And of course there are many ways apart from neglecting my health that I’ve been irresponsible, that I’ve failed to take care, that I’ve proven to be undeserving of the sympathy and compassion of strangers. It may be that in comparison to her I’m the more fit target for my inner Republican’s contempt, which is to say, my inner Republican needs to look in the mirror.
As the Ghost of Christmas Present says to Scrooge, rebuking him for his casually cruel remark about decreasing the surplus population:
“Man...if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!