An unforgiving people

Pink ribbons. Pink TicTacs. Heck, even the local oil distributor has painted its tanker truck pink. It seems far different from the days when no one uttered the C-word, with the implication that it was somehow a divine judgment, or the sufferer’s fault.

Or has it changed? Would we still be having the vicious healthcare argument if it has?

The argument is this: If we adopt single-payer or any type of subsidized healthcare system, the motivation to work or make good choices will be lost. Knowing we could always go to the doctor, we’ll quit our jobs en masse, or guzzle soda in one hand and whiskey slings in the other. We will do nothing right and, what’s worse, will not need to pay for our wrong decisions.

The unspoken assumption: that payment is, and should be, financial ruin followed by death.

Years ago, I remember the resignation of the infamous New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli who, like so many politicians of my home state, was involved in campaign finance chicanery. But while he deserved to leave public office, part of his farewell speech will always stick in my mind: “When did we become such an unforgiving people?” (You can read the whole speech here.)

You can argue Torricelli never truly paid for his mistakes, other than losing a position that he considered his identity. Like all wealthy men, he landed on his feet. We forgive the wealthy and famous for their faux paus; their public humiliation is perhaps considered enough. For those we consider our lessers, however, we expect payment to be vicious.

When did we become such an unforgiving people? My answer: when we divided ourselves into tribes, into In-Group and Other, divided along the lines of hierarchical dualism. A person of color — especially one who lived through the days of lynching — would say we have always been an unforgiving people. Or the homeless man sleeping in the gutter, or the sick raccoon being poked with sticks by a circle of teenage boys.

So, first, forgiveness — whether for actual mistakes, or the larger mistake of not being born into a certain station — is determined by tribe. We forgive our tribe their mistakes. We often feel the government should help our tribe and, by extension, us when we need it. Or, we say that the tribe should care for its own and then assume that care will be provided by the less-valued members, such as women, children, the elderly.

When a member of our tribe makes a mistake, we are likely to point to mitigating factors that we, as fellow tribe members, frequently know. We point to our fellow tribe member’s character and humanity. When someone from another tribe makes a mistake, on the other hand, we don’t accord him this leeway; he should have known the outcome, regardless of character, family ties and the realities of human existence.

The other ideological justification for “payment” and non-forgiveness comes from our Puritan forebears. Calvinists — who, of course, comprised the bulk of our Founding Fathers and were a genuinely unlikable bunch when you got down to it —┬ábelieved in the notion of the elect. In short, good things — wealth and health — happen to those who are chosen by God. If something bad happens to you, it’s because you are not God’s chosen; you are bound for hell, and thus deserve it. An echo of this notion survives in today’s “Health and Wealth Gospel.”

In New Age communities, you see another variant, usually encapsulated in the term “You create your own reality.” These days, I hear the variant: “You can change your DNA!” In short, the idea is that the sum of your thoughts and actions determine every damn thing that happens to you. If you get cancer, it’s because you didn’t go vegan, or do enough yoga, or grow enough of your own food. This notion, too, centers on the concept of the elect; those outside that circle are still condemned to damnation, whether that’s illness or poverty or pain.

Suffering and death are the fruits of sin, and the other guy is always the sinner. When it happens to us or our own, it’s just a great big mistake.

When do we become such an unforgiving people? When we divide ourselves into tribes, rather than seeing ourselves as equal members of the same human tribe. When we cling to an idea of the elect and censure all those who cannot meet the muster as the damned. When we believe that good and bad things only come to those who deserve it, and secretly imagine ourselves in the former category.

In short, when we act from our animal side rather than our rational human side — when we drive out or kill the weak instead of protect them.

I am no Christian, but I’ve always appreciated the character of Jesus. He stopped a crowd from stoning n adulterous woman, saying, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” He didn’t say: “Eh, stone the bitch; she fucked up.” He tells the tale of the Samaritan helping the injured traveler, whom the good and righteous pass by and leave to die. He drove the money-lenders out of the Temple. “The meek shall inherit the earth,” he said. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

I am no Christian, but my Goddess — Brighid — is a Goddess of mercy. When she was later made a Christian saint, the tales all told of her generosity, her willingness to comfort and provide for the sufferer. Many Pagan traditions also speak of hospitality, since any stranger and any sufferer can be the Gods in disguise.

Compassion does not derive from weakness, but from strength. To quote a book I’m now reading by T. Thorn Coyle: “Lack of compassion is a sign of weakness, constriction, and scarcity. Compassion is seeing someone or some situation as she or it really is. This is not pity or coddling of weakness. True compassion is the deepest respect, a form of seeing clearly that calls upon truth, strength, and honor.”

May it be so.