I had the good fortune of an excellent education in Roman Catholic schools. Not only did I learn the three R's well, but the nuns in elementary school gave me a deep sense of empathy for the less fortunate in the world.
I also credit my mother for teaching me compassion. I remember "hoboes" coming to our kitchen door asking for a meal. She always fed them. This was in the mid 1940's, and there were still displaced men riding the rails, so to speak.
So, whether it was the good school Sisters of Notre Dame or my mother or both, I have a deep sense of concern for those who find themselves in vicious cycles they can't seem to escape.
Somehow in the ensuing years, those less fortunate became known as "moochers." Those who fell on hard times became people with "character flaws." Those who didn't enjoy a level playing field became "lazy."
But no matter how society has changed its references to them, now, some 70 years after I watched my mother feed those men, I still consider all human beings to have inherent worth and dignity.
At times I think I touch the depths of despair when I see how our society has forgotten the simple fact that the marginalized and weakest among us need our help. That as the richest nation in the world, we can't seem to find the money for the basic safety net for those who need it through no fault of their own. That we can't figure out a healthy, well-fed, decently-housed, and educated society is better for everyone and we continue to make these necessities more difficult to get.
Yes, of course, there is no argument. Some percentage of people will game the system. And shame on them. But to act as though everyone will, demonstrates a deep ignorance of the compromised social systems that marginalize the very people who need our help.
I've worked with people all my adult life, and I've learned a fundamental lesson. Work gives dignity and given an even chance human beings want to earn their own way. And therein lies our primary difficulty as a society.
Half of the people in this society think the opposite; that people are basically lazy and need to be prodded and controlled to carry their own weight. I've met a few of these so-called lazy people. I found that deep listening to their stories reveals the circumstances they faced when they decided to give up. They didn't come into the world asking for a handout.
I read a quote some time ago, and I can't give credit to who said it. But to paraphrase, if we are going to keep pulling drowning people out down-river, we should figure out how to stop throwing them in up-river.
Adding to or deducting from our costly social safety nets won't solve the problem. Our first challenge is to enhance our compassion and diminish our suspicion. In other words, give those marginalized people the benefit of the doubt. Then, we need to create a society that nurtures and supports education, health care, healthy nutrition, and decent housing.
But the underlying challenge that keeps us apart on these issues is a core belief about the true nature of humankind. Are we inherently good or bad? Can we be trusted to do the right thing or must we be managed and controlled?
I doubt if my mother gave these questions a second thought. She just kept feeding hungry men who came to the kitchen door. So, our society can do the same, just keep feeding the hungry and never think about the causes of the hunger. Or we can take a closer look at the circumstances that create the hunger in the first place.
This is sure. This battle is raging in the halls of government right now. And our country is still divided.
Robert De Filippis