Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Widespread Desperation and what to do about it

Widespread Desperation--what can we do?
There are many desperate people in our world. Some act out their desperation. They shoot and kill perfect strangers, they invade a former workplace and kill one-time colleagues. Husbands kill their wives and children and then themselves. Men kill former girl friends. Abused wives kill their husbands. Other direct their desperate violence against themselves and cut their arms or numb their unhappiness with pills, or alcohol, or drugs, or commit suicide.
Explanations of this flood of desperation are endless. There are those who blame it on the decay of family values, or on people turning their backs on God. Others blame rampant materialism. Others again blame our restless movement back and forth across the country that destroys established communities.
A recent, particularly pathetic story raises other questions about desperation and what we might be able to do about it.
Bobby Yurkanin, an only child grew up to set up his own business. In the late 1990s his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he returned home to nurse her until she died in 2001. By that time is father was showing clear signs of Alzheimer's and Bobby took the challenge gamely and nursed his father as he became more and more demented and, with that, more and more difficult. He moved to Florida with his father and was constantly at his side. A short while ago, at the beach with his father who had taken his trunks off, when Bobby tried to put those trunks back on, the father fell in the water and drowned. Accused of contributing to his father's death, Bobby's lawyer negotiated a deal for 15 years of probation.
Bobby, the newspapers report, was the only caretaker for his father, as he had been for his mother before. For the last ten years this man had dedicated himself to caring for his sick and, in the case of his father, very difficult parents. Was his father's drowning an accident or did Bobby finally snap?
The central fact is that no one helped Bobby. In Florida he and his father lived in a large condominium. Many neighbors had seen them for years, had witnessed Bobby's struggles and heard his occasional outbursts of rage against his father. Did anyone help? No, Bobby was the sole caretaker of his father. The neighbors watched, they complained about the old man running down the hall clad only in a diaper. But if anyone tried to help Bobby, it is not recorded.
The newspapers do not even ask whether anyone helped Bobby; they assume that no one would. The neighbors did not talk it over and go to Bobby to offer him a night off every now and then; they did not hold a bake-sale to raise money to hire someone to help. No, they all just looked out for themselves.
This represents one American tradition: everyone is out for him or herself. If neighbors or even strangers have problems looking after their own lives, we surmise that they must have done something wrong. At any rate it is not our problem. This individualism goes back to the early days of capitalism. Adam Smith the 18th century prophet of the free market said it in these words: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest.” As long as all look out for themselves, we will all be better off.
That may be true in some aspects of the economy, but even an economic system requires mutual trust; all participants must be mindful of the requirements for a functioning economic system. Much more obviously, just looking out for number one produces dysfunctional families. Schools work well if they create a caring community where everyone counts and every one considers everyone else; they fail if all only benefit themselves. In neighborhoods where no one knows or cares about their neighbors, crime is liable to be rampant. Health care, care for children and the elderly will be defective if selfishness is the rule.
While, on the one hand, we believe that all should take care of themselves and we have few responsibilities to our neighbors, we have, on the other hand, always known that. Americans worshiping different gods have all been taught to love their neighbor like themselves. We have always practiced this--some of the time-- in a variety of ways. Many people who grew up in smaller towns, talk about how everyone took responsibility for all the children. If you did something you were not supposed to do, someone would notice and call your mother before you even got home. In later years when you came home you would visit all of these, now old, ladies who had watched over you and cheered you on. In many communities neighbors used to with casseroles when there was a death in the family. After 9/11, the bumpers stickers. “United we stand” testified to the same theme: in times of trouble we need to look out for each other.
We live in a particularly hard times – many people have lost their jobs and/or their houses. We confront a clear choice between the different sides of our traditions: acting as separate individuals, and treating others as the same, denying that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. If we choose that, we will see more mass shootings, more killings, more suicides. On the other hand, we can also keep alive those aspects of our traditions that involve looking out for our neighbors and expecting them to do the same for us. In desperate times, we can reduce desperate acts by taking some responsibility for the suffering we witness. We can make it our business to be good neighbors and reduce the extent of desperation and desperate acts.
The choice is ours.