Monday, March 20, 2017

A Plea for More Civility and Less Rudeness. Please?


Rude (adjective) 1. offensively impolite or ill-mannered; discourteous --Dictionary.com

When the first American President George Washington was a boy of 12, he wrote out in longhand a list of 110 rules about how he hoped to act in his life, especially in public.  Washington titled it “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation”, and he carried a copy of it with him throughout his life. Though he likely copied most of those rules from other sources of his day, I’m still struck by how earnest this future commander in chief was, from a very early age; how careful he sought to be in all his relationships with others; and how he sought to carry himself in public.

Rule#1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those 
that are Present.

Rule#22: Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

Rule#40: Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment 
to others with Modesty.

Rule#58: Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy

Rule#79: Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.

It’s a fascinating list to review (I encourage you to Google it), for what’s most striking is how true its wisdom holds for today, 273 years later.  The basic ideals about how we human beings relate to one another in daily life and carry ourselves in community: these don’t change or go out of fashion. 

Respect others, especially those with whom we disagree and those who hold different ideas than us.  Don’t revel in the pain or defeat of anyone, friend or foe. Argue well but do so with humility. When you speak, be very careful about what you say and always avoid jealousy or put downs.  Don’t share news that you know to be untrue or are unsure as to its truthfulness.   

Shorthand for all these rules: don’t be rude.  Or a positive admonition: be kind.

But what happens when the culture throws out all the rules?  When a basic communal understanding of what it means to be civil with each other, especially in public, gets tossed out?  When rudeness becomes normalized?

In Presidential tweets that regularly bully and beat up and taunt anyone who gets in the way.  In governmental circles where meetings between opponents now inevitably devolve into frat house food fights. In the Dunkin Donuts line where folks are in such a hurry that “please” and “thank you” and “no, after you!” seems as rare as a low calorie donut.  In technology that brings us closer together but is so often lacking a face to face connection that demands basic civility.  Couples can now break up by text!

It’s tempting to dismiss this hope for basic politeness as mere social window dressing. All this etiquette stuff is superfluous, nice for a formal dinner, but not really needed for real life.  It’s now become the norm to even laud someone who is publicly rude: “I love her because she just speaks her mind. How refreshing!” I’m not sure if we are now ruder in 2017 than in times past, but we’ve absolutely become much more public about it and we are paying a price for this, a huge social price. 

Civility is the glue which holds a society together.  A neighborhood.  A faith community.  A nation.  Town meeting. A family.  Civility is the sum of the unspoken and spoken rules of behavior, how we get along with one another, especially in public, especially with those we view as a stranger or an opponent, different. When civility is present, it’s like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day, so refreshing, so good.  A door opened for one in need.  Respectful attention paid when in the company of another.  Graciously welcoming a stranger or guest to the table. Civility creates an atmosphere for negotiation and compromise. The one across the table is not the enemy, but the loyal opposition.  Civility at its most basic recognizes the humanity of the other person, treats that “other” as we want to be treated. 

Civility matters in all times. So here’s a bit of civil advice for all of us as we seek to be together, in public, in life, in these intense days.

Don’t be rude. Be kind. 



 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Health Care For All: It's Not About the Money. It's About Mercy.


“There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill….” --Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III

I’m sick of being sick.

Not to get too personal, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last eight months, working with my doctors, to get well. You see, I’ve got a real pain in my neck—literally. Is it a pinched nerve? Arthritis? Lyme disease? Poor posture? Plain old aging? Take your pick. Finally, after so many tests and scans and x-rays and physical therapy and appointments, I think I’m on the road to recovery. I pray I will be back on my bicycle come spring, pain free, ready to ride.

Because being sick really stinks. 

No other way to name it. Illness deflates the spirit. Upsets the regular routines of life. Distracts the one who is ill, makes it hard to fully concentrate on other things. I’m not complaining. Through this journey I’ve been supported by caring family and friends, skilled healers, and one reassuring medicine that is perhaps more important to my peace of mind, than any other. It’s kind of a miracle cure actually, especially these days.

It’s my health insurance card. 

The 3 ¼ by 2 ¼ inch plastic rectangle I keep in my billfold. So powerful a drug for such a diminutive document, for when you possess this card, doors open, doctors respond, hospitals treat, practitioners practice, prescriptions are filled and most important, an insurance company (and sometimes the government too) helps pay for the cost of treatment. Treatment that almost always is very, very expensive.

You realize how central this card is to health the first time you walk into a doctor’s office or treatment facility for a visit. Often the initial question is not: “How are you feeling?” but, “Do you have insurance?” In 2017, for millions of Americans, the answer to this question may be about to take a turn for the worse, much worse, if some in power succeed and “reform” the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

The ACA is a 2010 law that has provided health insurance for upwards of 20 million Americans who previously lacked coverage, didn’t have that magic card in their wallets.  And yes, I do agree with the critics who note that the ACA is far from perfect. It is a work in progress. Yet the numbers don’t lie. Millions of our neighbors and the vulnerable and the invisible and the powerless and those living on the edge economically: they now have health care. The ACA has lowered the number of uninsured folks in the United States to less than ten percent of the population, the smallest figure ever.

So, yes, please, fix the ACA. Carefully. Thoughtfully. But don’t change it wholesale. Don’t gut it. Don’t make insurance more expensive for the financially struggling.  And please don’t, DON’T repeal it.

I’m not alone in being sick over the possibility of losing the ACA. Groups like the American Medical Association, the Catholic Health Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Hospital Association are all against the proposed bill. There’s basic economics at work too. We pay for the uninsured with or without the ACA. When folks who can’t afford health care, seek care, the cost of that care is added into the system’s bottom line. We have and will always pay for health care for the sick, one way or another. The United States is alone among almost all western developed nations, in not guaranteeing decent health care for all. America first? America dead last.  That is unless you have first class health insurance, like the President and the Congress do.  Any one else bothered by this whiff of hypocrisy? 

But as a person of faith, my argument lines up with Congressman Kennedy’s.  Providing affordable, decent health care for every last American citizen is the merciful and the right thing to do.  Period.  This is not an argument about money. This debate must be understood in moral terms.  When will we as a nation finally declare that it is our responsibility, together, to help the sick? To heal the wounded.  To reassure and comfort the poor and the powerless.  To see that anyone who ever gets sick (and that’s every one): they should have that miraculous health insurance card in their pockets too. Not just the “lucky” ones like me.

I’m still sick of being sick. But I’m really, really sick of having this debate about health insurance and health care, again and again and again and again.  Health care for all is finally about simple, decent, human mercy.  Not politics. Not partisanship.  Not posturing.  The real cure for what ails us our healthcare system?

Mercy.




                     

Monday, March 6, 2017

America's National Freak Out: When The News Never Stops




“The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.”
--George Orwell

When I was new to the craft of professional writing, I fell in love with one particular word: “crucial”, meaning, “decisive or critical; of great importance.” I suppose I was smitten with that word because I imagined it brought gravitas to my writing.  It was crucial to use ‘crucial’ as a crucial descriptor, to heighten the crucial nature of my story and reach that crucial reader. 

Right?

It drove my editor absolutely crazy. “John: if everything is crucial then nothing is really crucial,” she warned me.  “Use ‘crucial’ only if something is really crucial. Spare the hyperbole.  Chill out.”   

A good lesson for writing. A good lesson for life too.

If we are always crying wolf—THIS IS SO CRUCIAL--eventually no one will believe us.  If we imagine every bump in the road is an emergency, we’ll scan for threats 24/7. If we perceive every twinge in our bodies as life threatening, we’ll obsessively check our various symptoms on webmd.com. (Not that I’d ever do that.) 

No system can run at full throttle all the time, on the constant fuels of fear and worry and anxiety. Eventually it will seize up. Fry its circuits. Shut down. In small doses, adrenaline is life saving. It helps us respond to real danger. But in large doses, adrenaline exhausts the body and threatens burnout. That’s true for human bodies and spirits and true for our collective body politic too, for us as a nation, in our shared lives as citizens and neighbors. 

That’s important to remember because right now, in this weird time in our history, everything, EVERYTHING, every news story, every news leak, every breaking issue, all the news, on the news: it seems to be so darn crucial. Right?

SO CRUCIAL!!!!!!!

There’s no minor news any more, only major developments.  There’s no slow news days, only full news days. The nation anxiously awaits the next terrible or tantrum-filled tweet from our Tweeter in Chief.  I’ve been a joyful and engaged consumer of the news since my time as a newspaper boy, but these days I’m instead often consumed by the news, as are so, so many of my fellow citizens.  What if I miss something? Did you hear the latest?! What did he say?!

And so what I need to tell myself more, what I have been telling the folks I serve as pastor, is this crucial spiritual advice. (No exaggeration.) What to do when life feels anxious. When all events seem so crucial, even if sometimes they are not.

Breathe. BREATHE.  Step back.  Take a break from the news, a fast, maybe a full day a week. It will still be there when you return.  Put more of your restless energy into doing something (organize, volunteer, protest, donate, act) and less of your energy into just passively watching or reading the news. Return to the places in your life that feel true and can be trusted, no matter what is happening in the world.  Start with your own house of worship or faith tradition. Pray. Give it up and over to God and the Universe. Take the nervous energy provoked by the news and then take it out: for a long walk, a vigorous run, a spirited swim, a fun bike ride, a hike in the hills and leave the phone off, or better yet, leave it at home.

Can everything really be so crucial? 

Strange days.  When our national life is so intense, like someone forgot to turn down the sound and the TV is always on. Strange days. When our media is both a very good friend of democracy and a warped lens through which life is shown in such a distorted way. Strange days: when those we trust to lead us are so much more devoted to self interest than the common good.

That’s the news today. Some of it crucial. Some not so much.  Some good. Some bad. So breathe, America.  Just breathe.