Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Mendaciousness of the Responsibility Game

We are brought up in this society to think that we have control over our lives.  That if we do this or do that, if we work hard enough, if we go to college, etc., that the desired results will materialize for us.  And if things don’t work out, it is our fault.  In its crudest form, this has been expressed in recent years by Republicans in Congress who have stated bluntly that if you are poor, if you haven’t made it up the financial ladder, it’s your fault; you’re lazy.

This perspective on life is totally an illusion, a lie.  While we do have control over whether we work hard, whether we study hard, how we treat other people, whether we get married, etc., we have absolutely no control over whether those actions bear the desired fruits, which for most people are security, success, money, and as a result ... so we are taught ... happiness.

In truth, all we have control over is the way we relate to ourselves and to others, to the world around us.  Whether our actions bring about the desired result lies in the control of others  or is just a matter of good fortune, happenstance.  

Everyone will understand when I speak of the control of others.  But what about happenstance.  In common parlance, the phrase, “being in the right place at the right time,” is an example of that.  So many of the breaks that people receive in life, while often in part the result of careful planning, are really a result of everything falling into place, which is a function of happenstance.  

For example, let’s say you set up a meeting with several people and you learned of a great job opportunity and made a great contact.  Had the meeting taken place two days later, the discussion could have produced nothing, either because one person didn’t show or because an opportunity that was present on one day wasn’t there anymore two days later.  This is part of the vicissitudes of life.

Unfortunately, people who have “made it” tend not to be aware of how they have been blessed by circumstance.  Their ego tells them that it was all because of their hard work; luck or fortune had nothing to do with it.  And so they lack any compassion for those who haven’t made it, whether they are poor or struggling middle class or a lower level executive who isn’t going anywhere.  They’re not aware of the saying, “They’re but for good fortune (or the grace of God) go I.”  A preeminent example of this, perhaps, is Justice Clarence Thomas.

And so those who haven’t made it are made to feel by our culture that they are at fault.  They haven’t tried hard enough.  This internalized self-blame is very demoralizing.  People may often blame a particular individual for some opportunity not materializing or a venture failing, but they rarely get the larger point that the whole concept of control is an illusion.

Most of the frustration and pain we experience from trying and not succeeding comes from this illusion of control.  The lesson we as individuals need to take from being aware of the illusion of control is to let the idea of control go, to accept that all one can do is the best one can, but ultimately the result depends on many factors outside your control.  To have any peace, one must have the attitude, “If it works, great.  If it doesn’t work, that’s OK too.”

For those who are in government, the lesson is to understand that what our society deems “failure” is most often not a matter of someone not having tried.  It’s a result of growing up in an environment over which one has no control, whether it’s being born in poverty, having addicted parents, going to a school that doesn’t teach, growing up in an atmosphere of drugs and violence, the list goes on and on.  This is not an excuse; it is a fact of life; it is reality.

Or alternatively, it’s a function of all of a sudden the floor dropping out from under a successful life, often because a job has gone abroad or because of  major illness that leads to bankruptcy, which can start a cycle of long term unemployment, loss of house, and even homelessness.

Everyone who as a public servant is sworn to uphold the constitution needs to remember that the purpose of government, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, is “to secure these rights” ... namely, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This places several responsibilities on government.

The first is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve those goals.  And equal opportunity isn’t just a matter of ensuring that there is no discrimination in employment, housing, etc.  Real equal opportunity means that the playing field is leveled by ensuring that all children have access to the same level of quality education, something that is definitely not the case in this country.

The other major government responsibility stemming from this task is providing a safety net for those who are in need.  Whether someone is homeless or living in poverty or disabled, or at risk because they are old or unemployed, government needs to have programs that help people in need and provide them an opportunity to lift themselves up.

That this essential function of government has been so trashed by the Republican Right makes a travesty of our democracy and of their claim to be the defenders of the Constitution.