Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 15, 2007
“What Does a Person Deserve By Being Alive?
Rev. Catherine Torpey
A few weeks ago, I walked by a TV set, and something on the screen caught my eye. There was a black and white photo of a homeless man and a voiceover asking, “What Does a Person Deserve by Being Alive?” It was a fleeting moment—I had missed the commercial or public service announcement except for that last image and that last question—“What does a person deserve by being alive?” I loved the question. What’s more, that question combined with the image of the homeless person stirred a memory. So, when I next sat down at my Macintosh laptop, I googled the phrase, “What does a person deserve by being alive?”
It turns out that the question is the title of a film which I had seen a number of years ago at the COOL Conference—a yearly gathering of college students who are involved in outreach and social action. I remember the film only vaguely; the web search reminded me that it highlights the problems of hunger and homelessness in America with a series black-and-white photographs, set to music. Reading about the film got me to reminiscing about the Midnight Runs I used to do each week with students at Manhattanville College.
I’ve talked about the Runs before. Each Tuesday night, we would take a van full of food and clothing, drive into Manhattan and hand out what we had. One of my favorite moments on one of the runs was when I was sitting with a woman on the steps of Congregation Shearith Israel synagogue at 70th and Central Park West. She had set up her cardboard box on the synagogue steps after she’d chosen a sweatshirt and a blanket from the back of our van. It was about one or two in the morning and she, I, a couple of Manhattanville students and a couple of other folks from the street were sipping on coffee and chatting. She told us that what made the Midnight Run so special was that it was the only service for people like her that didn’t make her prove that she was worthy of the hand-out.
There are those who would say that people should have to prove that they deserve hand-outs. Many would argue that it is not a good idea to go out to the folks in cardboard boxes and give them clothing and food, because it only encourages them. Going to them and giving them food and clothing allows them to stay on the street. Therefore, their incentive for getting work and pulling themselves up is gone. There is an argument to be made that giving free services without requiring anything of the recipient is not helpful to that person in the long run. Such services can set up a dependency which ultimately weakens the recipient and diminishes their potential for real, long term success.
The Supreme Court decision a couple of weeks ago, striking down affirmative action programs in schools in Louisville, Kentucky and in Seattle, Washington, was motivated by a similar argument. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority decision, “is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The intention of the court’s decision is to foster a so-called “color blind” legal system. The underlying assumption is very similar to the argument against Midnight Runs. Giving black students seats in classrooms because they are black ultimately weakens the long-term prospects for racial equality. A “hand-out” of a seat in a classroom doesn’t help a black student in the long-run, the majority on the court believes. Justice Clarence Thomas put it this way: “If our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories.” The fear is that giving students preference because they are black creates a patronizing class of givers and a morally weakened class of recipients.
How do we know what a person or class of people “deserves”? Is there anything that a person deserves by being alive? Do people in cardboard boxes deserve free food and clothes? Do black students deserve to be in a certain school because of their race?
Michael Moore’s excellent new film, Sicko, asks whether Americans all deserve to have our medical needs covered for free. One particularly surprising piece of the film is when he goes to France and learns that new mothers have helpers come in for several hours a week, paid for by the government. These helpers are there to do whatever the mom needs of them, so that she can get a few hours of respite. This is a hand-out that every new mom gets. She doesn’t have to prove that she deserves it. Does this foster an unhealthy dependency on the part of new moms?
So what does a person deserve by being alive? Some would argue that we deserve food and clothing, we deserve to have a spot in a classroom if we’re from a traditionally excluded group, and that we deserve free and accessible health care. Others would caution that simply handing out such things fosters laziness and turpitude.
The argument against hand-outs has validity. We’ve all had the experience of how much more we value the things that we have had to sacrifice for. I remember the first time I bought myself an expensive clothing item with money I had earned working at Medi Mart—a drug-store chain later bought out by Wal-Mart. I went to Bloomingdales one day and saw a pair of suede cowboy boots that I just loved. Being the fashion maven that I am, they didn’t go with any other clothing item I owned. I had no intention of buying any skirt, pants or hat that would go with the boots, but I loved those boots and began saving for them immediately. Ah, the joy when I was able to plunk down my hard-earned cash for them. I didn’t care that my fellow high-school students asked me every day where the rodeo was. I loved them and wore them until there was no heal and the suede was entirely too weather-beaten to be seen in public. It felt great to earn those boots.
Or, to use a less frivolous example, when we help a young person with their homework, it is not helpful to say, “Here, give me your math problems and let me do them while you watch.” It is far more helpful, and more respectful of the child’s intelligence, to simply sit with them and encourage them and give little tips and hints sparingly. To hand out answers would subtly or not-so-subtly encourage the child to believe that they are incapable of doing the work themselves.
So, it is more than reasonable for us, when considering social policy, to ask whether our actions are fostering an unhealthy dependency; to ask whether we are giving genuine help or whether we are—to use the psychological term—“enabling” behavior that is not in the best interest of the person we seek to help.
Some might argue that no one deserves anything by virtue of simply being alive.
But I would argue that American social policy has swung so very far in the direction of not wanting to be enabling that we have become almost cruel. When According to the Institute of Medicine, "lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States,” when so many lack basic needs such as housing, and when the Supreme Court decides that the way to de-segregate schools is to stop trying to de-segregate schools, we are in no danger of being a nation of enablers.
That film that I saw several years ago, the one entitled “What does a person deserve for being alive?” ends with these words by Eli Siegel: "The world should be owned by the people living in it.... All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs." Eli Siegel is the founder of a philosophy called Aesthetic Realism, and the filmmaker is an adherent of Aesthetic Realism. Siegel taught that the greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it. Siegel sees contempt as humanity’s most basic sin, if you will. It is from the basis of contempt that all other ills grow. Contempt is defined in Aesthetic Realism as increasing oneself by lessening what is different from oneself. To counter this danger, the goal of this philosophy is to see the unity in apparent opposites.
Our own Unitarian Universalist principles say something similar when we talk about the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, and, most importantly, the first principle of our Association which calls on our congregations to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
To state that there is anything that a person deserves for the simple fact of their existence is to assume that a human being has inherent worth and dignity. And that is where the opening words of the Hebrew Bible become relevant to this discussion.
This ancient creation story, so central to our religious history, tells us that human beings were created intentionally by a loving force which was pleased by what it had wrought. Upon the close of each day, God pronounced the creation “good,” and when human beings entered into creation, God pronounced it all to be “very good.” What made the addition of humanity not just good but very good was that we, unlike any other part of creation, were made in the image of the divine. Each one of us is an expression of the divine. This is fundamental to our religious heritage, going back to that original story of creation. The terminology has evolved so that today, UU’s speak of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It began with the image of the divine in our souls—yours and mine, in the black students of Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington; in that homeless woman who I chatted with on the steps of the synagogue, and in the new mom who could use the government to send her a helper for a few hours a week so that she can get some respite.
The social policies of this country, although they have been shaped over the last twenty-five years by men who claim to be firmly planted in the Christian faith, have moved farther and farther away from understanding each and every human being as being made in the image of God, as having inherent worth and dignity. The trend began somewhere around 1981, with Ronald Reagan speaking about helping the truly needy but not the truly greedy. Michael Moore’s film dates the beginnings of the modern health care system a bit earlier, during the presidency of Richard Nixon.
In the early 80’s, the agenda to change the welfare system, to move people off the welfare rolls, was strongly and widely supported. I recall a conversation with a man I knew at the time, who was politically relatively liberal, but believed that the welfare system was over-run by the truly greedy and not the truly needy. He was disgusted, I think it’s fair to say, by the way the welfare system encouraged people to remain dependent for generation after generation. He described the sense of obnoxious entitlement that he experienced day after day with the people he was providing services to. I imagine that he felt the way I used to feel if a person on the street came up to the Midnight Run van and said, “What’s this ugly grey sweatshirt you’re trying to foist on me? I want an extra large red hoody. Why don’t you have anything good?” And believe me, every night there was one person who was disgusted with us for not catering to him as though he were a paying customer at a high-priced haberdashers. There are most definitely those who will be quick to see themselves as entitled to have what they want when they want it, and they believe that it is your responsibility to see to it that they receive it now. The feeling in this country in the 1980’s was that that attitude was pervasive throughout the welfare system and that it was being encouraged by that system.
The man who is the head of the Midnight Run is a man named Dale Williams. Dale used to be homeless himself. Now he is a married homeowner and the executive director of the Midnight Run organization. Whenever he is asked how he began to turn his life around, he always says that it started with receiving a sandwich from Midnight Run. “While I was hungry,” he says, “When I was spending all day every day trying to figure out how to get clean clothes; while I was lonely and isolated on the street, I couldn’t even begin to think about how to turn my life around.” He emphasizes that it took time. He received from Midnight Run for at least a couple of years before he was in a position to really turn things around for himself and become someone who was handing out sandwiches on the Runs instead of receiving them.
Those who have contempt—to use Eli Siegel’s term—for the people who receive hand-outs seem to believe that withholding benefits from people motivates them to do for themselves. If we withhold clothing and food from the folks on the street, then they will be motivated to go out and get a job, earn the money and buy their own clothing and food. But which is more likely to motivate me to get a job—if I only have old, dirty, torn clothing; if I’m hungry and and lonely and am aware that I am despised by society? Or, will I feel more motivated to do for myself when I have decent clothes, when I have a sandwich in my bag, and when a group of friendly folks came by during the night to spend a bit of time with me?
The Universalist half of our heritage cries out to us that it is the latter which is more conducive to moraltiy. Our Universalist Christian forebears, knowing that God had pronounced us very good, preached that God has already saved you. You have an eternity of Midnight Runs awaiting you, and, as the woman on the steps of the synagogue put it, you will never have to prove that you are worthy. God’s van is full of everything you need and everything you want. God even has your extra large red hoody, even if you demand it in the most obnoxious way.
You know, in the early days of the Unitarians and the Universalists, Unitarians believed that Universalism was a horrible, dangerous religion. And this attitude had everything to do with the question of what people deserve. Unitarians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries believed in that salvation was the result of a lot of very earnest hard work. Not everyone was worthy of salvation by a long-shot in the eyes of early Unitarians. Like those who argue today that the Midngith Run only encourages turpitude, early Unitarians fear that the Universalist message would encourage laziness and depravity. They could not believe that anyone would say that God hands out salvation without determining who deserves it and who doesn’t.
So within our religious tradition, we have both: on the one side, demands for high moral standards before one is declared worthy to receive. On the other side is Universalism—the firm conviction that it is the infinite generosity of God’s love which motivates us to do good in the world, both for ourselves and for others.
On the Midnight Run, we did not have no standards. We did not give people anything they wanted no matter how they behaved. True, we handed out our goods freely and joyfully. But you only got one pair of socks, one blanket, one shirt, one pair of pants, etc. You could have as many sandwiches as you decided you needed, but clothing was much more precious and so, no, no matter how many times you ask me, no matter how many times you get back in line hoping I’ll forget that you already got a pair of jeans, no you are not getting more than your fair share. And, we never ever gave out money. And, finally, if an unfriendly argument began for any reason, we packed up immediately and left and we would never return to that location. These were the rules for any group that participated in the Runs.
And so saying that there are basic things—food, clothing, health care, education—that our citizens deserve by the simple fact of being alive does not mean that we cannot, in our generosity, make reasonable rules so that we aren’t being taken advantage of.
Our Universalist heritage, to me, calls out strongly to embrace the notion that God has pronounced us as very good and lavishes us with generosity now and for eternity. And I have found it to be true that a spirit of generosity usually does more to bring out the best in us than efforts to make ourselves prove ourselves worthy.
Eli Siegel warned that contempt is the gravest danger. What stops us from being good and being happy, he says, is not loving the world as it is.
I’d be curious to know—how well does it work when you take the attitude with yourself that you don’t deserve thus and so. How well does it work when you say to yourself the equivalent of, “You aren’t getting any free sandwich and free sweatshirt. Get a job.” In other words, how well does it work when you treat yourself with contempt? My guess is that it generally doesn’t work very well. My guess is that allowing yourself to receive the basic necessities you need spiritually and emotionally has equipped you to allow your natural drive to gear back up when it had what it needed to function properly.
What does a person deserve by being alive? Hungry persons deserve to eat, no matter the manner by which they became hungry. Poorly clothed people deserve to be clothed, no matter the manner by which they came to that state. All children deserve to be well educated, and if black children are receiving poorer educations then they deserve to be singled out to redress the imbalance. Each and every one of us deserves free, universal and accessible health care. We deserve these basic things even though we may not act in a manner that might deem us worthy. For, as Sir John Davies expounded in his poem so many centuries ago, to be a human being is to be frail and yet divine, both a proud and a wretched thing. And being thus, let us be as one.