“You were NOT a Republican,” she stated. ”There is just no way.”
“Not just a Republican,” I replied. ”I was actually heartbroken that, because of my age, I missed voting for Ronald Reagan by only three months in the 1984 election.”
Since I was talking to my friend on the phone, I can’t confirm that her mouth was actually hanging open, but I’m pretty sure it was.
“What happened?” she finally asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” I replied. ”But by the time I graduated from college, I’d changed political parties.”
In all honesty, I do know what happened. I’d identified the core values that would guide the rest of my life, and they simply just didn’t align with the Republican Party.
I don’t think my friend, or anyone else, really cares about how I arrived at my decision. And, until this past week, I didn’t feel any need to explain.
But after witnessing one too many debates about how people who receive SNAP (more commonly known as food stamps) may be eligible for additional benefits if they were affected by the derecho (http://www.catholiccharitieswv.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=300%3Awv-long-term-disaster-recovery-derecho-storm-a-power-outage-disaster&catid=45%3Aannouncements&limitstart=1), I felt the need to say something.
On the surface, the gist of the conservatives’ argument against the additional benefits was that the government was once again frivolously spending taxpayers dollars.
But, as the arguments continued, a different, more self-centered concern actually emerged. Several people were turning the discussion into a conversation about fairness, or more particularly unfairness, in regards to their own lives: ” I lost all my food when the power went out, and no one is paying me to replace it.” “I have a lot of health care bills, and the government isn’t stepping in to help me.” ”Basically, I’m being punished for having a job. “
Sadly, I could relate to their complaints. That kind of thinking was the reason I had originally registered a Republican.
At the age of 18, I really did believe that everyone had an equal opportunity in this country, and if a person worked hard and persevered, they should be able to meet their own needs. If they couldn’t make ends meet, they needed to work harder or get a better education to get a better job. I believed in responsibility: if people made bad decisions then they, not I, should have to pay for those decisions. And I believed that our leaders had our, not their own, best interests at heart.
I held onto those beliefs because I was surrounded by people who believed the same thing. Then I went to college, and I was surrounded by people who didn’t.
I met too many people who had been denied equal opportunity through no fault of their own. I met too many people who had made poor decision after poor decision only to be bailed out by family while others fell into bad luck and had no one who could help. I learned more and more about greed, inequality and political corruption. And I learned more about myself.
At some point, I was confronted with the ultimate question: is life about what I can do for myself or is it about providing unconditional support for others, even when it sometimes costs me?
I chose the latter.
Don’t get me wrong. I can be very self-centered, and I know a lot of Republicans who are anything but selfish.
I just don’t think the core of my political beliefs should be about what makes my, or my family’s, life better or easier. I think public policy should be about ensuring the safety and well-being of all Americans, particularly those who haven’t had the same privileges that I’ve had: good parents, a good education, a decent I.Q. and a lack of any significant health problems.
When I look back on 18-year-old me, I still understand where I was coming from.
I still think people should do their best and be responsible for their behavior. I also think corporations and millionaires should do the same.
I still believe in hard work and self discipline. I also believe that too many people work very hard and still don’t get paid a fair wage so they can’t make ends meet.
I still wish life were fair. I also realize that making life more fair for everyone requires public policies that provide additional support for those who need it.
The difference between 18 year-old me and 45 year-old me is I don’t think the world owes me anything. Instead, I think I owe the world. The difference is I know some people put their own interests above the interests of others, even when it comes to the environment or safety or health. And I know that the most effective way to ensure such people do minimal damage is to implement and enforce regulation.The difference is that even though I don’t agree with wasteful spending, the wasteful spending I’ve seen isn’t for the programs intended to make the lives of most Americans better.
The difference is that I have enough life experience to know that life isn’t about being fair.
And that’s why I got so frustrated with the debate about additional SNAP/food stamp assistance. The debate wasn’t about whether people needed the assistance. Instead, it was a debate about fairness. I’m pretty sure if you asked the majority of people who were eligible to receive the help, they would be the first to tell you life isn’t fair. If it were, they’d be fortunate enough to afford to replace their own groceries while complaining about those who couldn’t.
There are times when I just want to scream out loud. But that doesn’t necessarily solve any problems, so sometimes I choose to scream through writing.
Now is one of those times.
While I can’t emphasize enough that I believe in the First Amendment, that everyone is entitled to their own opinions and that everyone should be allowed to express them, there are times when those opinions just seem so off base.
Take, for example, the number of people who complain about others who take “handouts” and/or boast that they have never done so themselves. They often say this as though they are morally superior.
Personally, I’ve received more handouts than I ever deserved. And this Thanksgiving, I am so grateful for them.
The handouts I’ve received may not have been in the form of government assistance for low-income individuals, but they are the reason I haven’t had to depend on such help when I’ve hit a rough patch.
I am grateful that I received the handout of a mother who didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs and had a healthy diet while she was pregnant. Her decisions provided me with a giant advantage in life. I was born healthy and had parents who ensured I maintained my health. Too many people start life without that handout and spend the rest of their life trying to catch up.
I am grateful for the handout of parents who were concerned about my education from the day I was born. They shared their love of the written word by reading out loud to me. They didn’t set me in front of a television so they could go on with the lives they wanted. They provided me with books, crayons and the opportunity to express myself. Too many people spent the first three years of their lives without any of those handouts - handouts that greatly influence their ability to learn and process information.
I am grateful for the handout of being a child that never knew what it was like to be truly scared or cold or hungry. There was always food on the table, in the cupboard, in the refrigerator and in the freezer. I never went to bed afraid that there wouldn’t be heat in the morning or that I wouldn’t have a coat to wear in cold weather. Too many people grow up without the simple handout of having those basic needs met – which creates a completely different perspective of how the world works.
I am grateful for the handout of parents who made their children and their family a priority. I always felt wanted. I always felt like I belonged and I always felt like I helped make my family complete. I was never told I was a mistake. I was never told I was a burden. And I was never told that my parents’ life would be easier if I wasn’t around. Just as importantly, I wasn’t hit, kicked burned or assaulted in my own home. Too many people grow up abused and wondering why they even exist. The handout of love is powerful, and without it, people often seek affection and attention in the wrong places and in the wrong ways.
I am grateful for the handout of having parents who wanted me to succeed and who demonstrated self-discipline and good decision-making skills. They required my brother and me to take responsibility for our actions. They also ensured that we were exposed to a wide variety of opportunities and activities. They were never in jail, they never dragged us into unsafe locations and they didn’t bring a variety of unsavory characters into our home. Too many people grow up without the handout of positive role models. Their parents or caretakers or community members are stumbling through life attempting to meet their own needs without even considering those of their children. Our ability to make choices and understand consequences is a skill… and like all skills it needs to be demonstrated and practiced.
I am grateful for the handouts I received that were beyond human control. I’m not dyslexic, I’m not disabled and I’m not disadvantaged. I am surrounded by people who can lend a helping hand. When I faced a real emergency, there were always people in my life who had the resources to help me. Too many people are surrounded by people who are facing their own crises and don’t have the ability to help anyone else.
I am truly saddened by people who view poverty as a simple issue. It isn’t.
And I am bothered that some people think life is an even playing field and everyone has equal opportunities. We don’t.
And I worry about the belief that low-income people have flawed characters rather than an unbelievable set of obstacles to overcome.
I agree that there are success stories.There are people who have beaten the odds, overcome horrible situations and gone on to live very productive lives. I am privileged to know such people.
And I also know that somewhere along their life path, they got some handouts – generally in the form of a caring person or persons who wanted to share all they had been given: whether material or spiritual. People who wanted to pay it forward rather than to hold it tight. People who understood the value of offering their hearts and their hands out to others.
On this Thanksgiving, I am not only grateful for the all of the hands that have been held out to me, I am grateful for the role models and heroes who continue to do this for others on a daily basis.
Holding your hands out can be a miracle for others.
Opening your heart to others can be a miracle for you.
I hope everyone has the opportunity to do both this Thanksgiving and into the upcoming holiday season.