I have had a knot in my stomach for the last several days. First, the government shutdown was “looming.” Then the government was shut down. And now I am hearing that the government may be shut down for “weeks.” That knot in my stomach just keeps getting bigger. I am partisan. That is probably obvious. But this particular knot in my stomach has much less to do with the political theater and wrangling between parties, and much more to do with two issues: compassion and the common good.
I’ve heard a couple of talking heads say that this government shutdown is no big deal, just shutting down some museums and parks.
I can barely find the words to describe how angry that makes me feel.
There are 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed—sent home with no pay and no way of knowing when or if they’ll be able to go back to work. More federal workers have been told that they are essential and they have to go to work, but don't know when or if they will be paid. Think about that number. More than eight hundred THOUSAND people who have no income. Families with mortgages and orthodontist bills and car payments and groceries that need to be purchased. Single mothers. One-income families. Don’t forget the ripple effect. Non-government employers are likely to have to lay off workers if contracts fall through or are broken.
And then there are the children. It doesn’t sound like a big number, but it’s a number that breaks my heart. Thirty children with cancer who were hoping to enroll in drug trials through the NIH have been turned away because of the shut-down. Thirty children whose families were pinning any hope of recovery or remission on some new miracle drug that might—possibly, maybe—provide a few more days, weeks, months or even years. My nephew was one of these children who enrolled in one last drug trial as one last possible hope. Now the parents and families and supporters of these thirty children have to do what? Give up? Go home and get prepared for what feels like getting hit by a bus?
It’s very easy from a position of privilege to dismiss these people, these children, displaced workers, inconvenienced citizens as no big deal. But it’s a very big deal when you’re walking in those shoes. Our talking heads and members of congress don’t seem to be aware of the impact of their decisions, and many of them don’t seem to have any clue about what compassion means. No Wheeled Meals for some low income seniors. No more child care through Head Start. How in the world is that not a big deal?
These are human beings. This shut down is not inconvenient. This government shut-down is devastating. And you can only know that if you have compassion for the stories of those you do not know, may never meet, but with whom you share humanity!
And that’s the other major issue in all of this. The idea of the Common Good has faded from our public rhetoric. We rarely hear our politicians talk about service or the common good in any meaningful way. But working for the common good is an essential part of any real democracy. The common good means that I do not work only for my own benefit, or my own power. Working for the common good means that I work to make life good or better or fair for as many people as I can. And I sacrifice some to do that. Taxes are one thing we do for the common good, paying for a police force and for decent roads and bridges, good schools, things most everyone needs. If I say “why should I pay taxes for schools? My kids are done!” I am forgetting that an educated population is part of the common good. If I own a corporation and spend more time focused on shareholders, so that my workers are underpaid and uninsured, I am forgetting that people who have a living wage and decent healthcare are more loyal and better workers.
One of my daughter’s friends, Alex, is a passionate debater of all things political (and theatrical). Although he himself is not a person of faith, he quoted John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” And Alex notes, “That's the ideal, to me. The idea that we are only as good or as strong or as free as the person next to us is, and if not all are then we have failed. We may be born alone and we may die alone, but we are in this together and should be noble enough to sacrifice some "personal freedom" in the name of the greater good. I will tell you truly that I fervently desire to make such a sacrifice despite my relatively limited means in the American economy because it would do so much good for so many other people. It's called empathy."
Compassion. Empathy. The Common Good. These are spiritual values. Let’s make them community values. This government shut down is indeed a very big deal. And we should demand that our politicians begin to live up to these true American ideals..