Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Life as a Liberal

I've been debating about posting this story, as it doesn't reflect particularly well on me (well, the "me" of my past). However, I think it will be instructive, so post it I will.

I used to be a liberal, and at one point, a bit of a leftist. Communism never appealed to me as it tends toward totalitarianism. I leaned more toward social libertarianism or anarcho-syndicalism—at least, that's what I held in the partially and inadequately formed elements of my political and economic intelligence. I still don't understand economics as well as I should. However, having some years in management and as a small business owner, I now have a much more practical understanding of how business works and how tax policy actually affects the common man (albeit without most people knowing it).

What I never understood is how creeping socialism affects human charity, particularly since socialism is supposed to be about equality and equal access to wealth. While most socialists seem to tout these values as axiomatic, they don't seem to feel particularly bound as individuals to help this happen, putting it on the shoulders of the government to address. I was no different. I thought there should be government-sponsored daycare for single parents, government-sponsored health care for every citizen, job training, and so on. Yes, some anarcho-syndicalist... how you have all that without expansive government bureaucracy and interference in our lives, I'll never know, but I wasn't particularly consistent.

That inconsistency bled over into my life. My wife (now a ex-wife of an invalid marriage) and I occasionally donated to Amnesty International, WWF, and the humane society, but I don't recall that we ever did more then give a token offering to the poor. That was the job of Health and Welfare. It's easy enough to do when poverty or misfortune isn't knocking directly on your door. Then one day, misfortune knocked.

My daughter had begun elementary school and had made friends with a young girl I'll call Katy. Katy was a little rough in the etiquette department, not really understanding how to ask for things correctly or how to behave in other people's houses. We put up with these matters since Katy did not come over very often, and we attempted to educate as well as we could.

We began to learn more of the ugly truth about Katy's home situation. Her mother was either a drug user, mentally ill, or a bit of both. She could barely take care of herself, much less Katy. Her father did the best he could on a fry-cook's income. The fact that he worked nights did not help matters since Katy's mom was sometimes alone with Katy but unable to care for her properly. The situation worsened when she disappeared for a time. I'm not sure if she went into treatment somewhere or if she simply left a situation with which she was unable to cope. In any case, Katy's father now had sole care of Katy and a night job—and few if any means for night-time care for his daughter.

One night, he came to us in desperation. He had to be at work and had no one to care for Katy. He asked if she could stay and play with our daughter until he got off around 10:00 PM. We reluctantly agreed.

My wife and I talked about what a shame it was that there weren't resources for people in that situation and how something really should be done. Passive voice. Nameless entity. Something should be done.

When Katy's father called us the next time, the challenge was laid squarely. He had to close, which meant, he had to work until well after midnight, and he had already had problems in the past. Another missed shift would mean no more job. Oh yes, the guilt trip. It's our responsibility to cover for you. Well, we were having none of it. We declined and said we weren't able to help. We had no idea what kind of pressure Katy's father was truly facing. We found out a few days later. He had no one to take care of Katy, so he sent her off to bed, locked up the trailer, and went to work hoping for the best.

The best did not happen, nor did the worst. Our daughter came home and told us that Katy wasn't at her school anymore. Our next-door neighbor shared that Health & Welfare had gotten wind that Katy was being left alone, and they took custody of her. Much worse could have happened, but the situation was still grim.

Katy's father did manage to regain custody of her, and he promised to do whatever he could to avoid the situation in the future. I have run across him on a number of occasions, most notably at the church where I attended RCIA when I returned to the faith. Katy was enrolled in CCD classes there, and I could see something different in how he carried himself—something that suggested he had found a direction.

It's now eight years later, and Katy plays in the same orchestra as my daughter. I see her father at the performances. I was struck by a thought and by a sense of shame that I should have realized long ago. He made it there without my help. He continued to care for his daughter on a fry-cook's wages, made it possible for her to play sports, rented (or bought) her violin, and gave her many things that kids in whole families often don't enjoy. I felt an incredible shame that I had turned him away when he desperately needed help. I feel a need to ask him to forgive me, and I will probably do so when I see him next.

We are our brothers' keepers. When we depend on the government to provide the answers for such basic needs, we have failed in our own moral obligation. I don't know how I'll respond if I'm faced with such a situation again, but I pray I'll have the grace to do better.
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