All in all, we Americans are a pretty courageous lot. Our history is full of stories exemplifying hard work, standing up for what we believe in, and looking danger in the eye without flinching. We come together in times of tragedy and are literally willing to give our lives for the ideals of freedom and justice.
But there is one thing that we seem disproportionately afraid of, much like the mighty elephant’s fear of the tiny mouse. It is a fear that is deeply embedded in our culture, and I suspect it drives much of the political conflict we see happening across our nation today. It is the fear — often experienced as anger or gut-level aversion — of someone getting something that they don’t deserve.
Where does this intense emotional reaction come from? Maybe it’s a biologically based obsession with fairness to guard against the possibility of getting cheated out of our share of the pie? Or maybe it’s a natural by-product of our culture’s hyper individualism?
Whatever its source, it is this underlying fear that often creates gridlock in congress and paralyzes our effort to solve problems such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, and mental illness. Always lurking in the background of these discussions is the suggestion that we human beings are a real conniving bunch just waiting for any chance to take advantage of each other’s kindness. In the end, we tend to err on the side of caution, and critical human needs go unmet.
So what if someone does wind up getting something they don’t deserve? Is that really such a catastrophe? There is a story in the Christian tradition where a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ reply includes the challenge to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer then tries to cloud the issue by asking, “But who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan. I won’t retell the story here, but I encourage you to look it up and read it for yourself. The implication is that we help people because they need it, not because they deserve it.
There is a word for someone who reaches out to help others who may not deserve it. No, I’m not thinking of “gullible” or “naïve” or “enabling” ... I’m thinking of the word “hero.” Our culture reveres heroes and produces more than our share of them. But our heroes are usually individuals. We have a much harder time thinking of institutions and systems as having “heroic” capacity. Churches are always doing this kind of work, but isn’t it possible that we can also develop heroic schools? Heroic businesses? Even heroic government?
For this to happen, we have to get past our constant worrying that someone, somewhere, may get something they don’t deserve. Perhaps the most courageous thing we can do is to risk being taken advantage of in order to do the right thing.
Jim Strickland lives with his family in Marysville and teaches at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.