A couple of weeks ago, I had to make an emergency trip to Tennessee. My wife’s sister, Lien, was in the ICU due to a life-threatening fever and they didn’t know what was causing it. I went for several reasons. First, and foremost, she’s family. She’s my little sister. But my in-laws called me specifically because Linh was (and still is) in Cali for the Army, and getting her away would have meant bad thing. Very bad things as anyone who has ever tried to get emergency leave due to a Red Cross notice can attest. Also, Linhs other sister, brother and their mother combined couldn’t even pool the money to take what turned out to be a week away from work. And finally, they called me because I screwed up 4 years ago and married my way into the position of head of both family and clan (they’re a rather traditional Vietnamese family). It was my responsibility, regardless of any other factors.
At the time, I thought Lien was at college in Georgia (she was), which meant her hospital was in Georgia (it wasn’t). So I called my aunt and uncle in Atlanta and said I’d be headed down and why. I also asked if they could visit Lien and let her know I was on my way, so of course they asked where the hospital was. Well, I had the adress. I had even been the one to write it down when my sister-in-law gave it to me over the phone, but I didn’t have a clue what it was. Chattanooga, TN.
“Oh, why don’t you stay with your dad’s sister in Chattanooga?””I have an aunt in TN?””Yes. Here’s her number.” And lo and behold, I had a place to stay literally 5 minutes from the hospital and 30 minutes from the college Lien was attending on Lookout Mountain in Georgia. So I went. I dropped everything (which wasn’t much, actually) and took off as fast as I could inform my unit that I would be missing drill that weekend.To make a long story slightly sh- Longer, I got there at about 2030 on Friday and spent the next 2 hours in the ICU letting my little sister know that even though she didn’t like her big brother much, he was there to help and I spent the next week with her, even after she got out of the hospital. They still don’t know what happened, but they also never checked for spider venom. Ah well. At least she’s all right.
The point to mentioning all this is the conversation it led to with my uncle. My dad’s sister’s husband. You see, they are very staunch Democrats and extremely Liberal. Sierra Club Liberal. But still, overall, decent people. I don’t really know how they do it and can only guess that their extremely hectic lifestyle leaves them no time to think about it. Well, the Tuesday after I got there, I managed to find a few minutes to talk about it. And I must say that I flubbed the conversation terribly. I came across as the young know-it-all who’s heart is in the right place but who doesn’t have the experience to really Get It yet.
So I wanted to put down a few arguments that I should have used.
You see, we had gotten to speaking about the pending Wall Street bailout, which — as many of you know — I am very much against, but which my uncle is for. He believes that the bailout needs to occur to save people from hardship. So they screwed up and took some bad loans or invested in bad companies. Forgive them, help them, let them keep their homes. At the least it’s an honourable sentiment. But he didn’t understand how I could be dead set against such a compassionate measure. So I explained it to him.
I explained that actions have consequences. That Americans and government have forgotten this and don’t want to be reminded. I explained that the government was an utter failure at providing a “safety net” and that only family and church could do it passably well and had proven they Could do it time and again even in recent history. I explained that the government needs to get out of the business of being everyone’s church and family and stop wasting the money it takes from us.
“I don’t want to live in your world.”
That was his response. He went on to clarify his comment by asking if I would be willing to subject someone to a retirement in the streets if that person had failed to prepare for his old age. My response was that that would be up to his family and his church. “But they won’t help him,” my uncle replied. Well, of course, my answer was:
“If you screw up that bad, you’d better hope for the kindness of strangers. After all, your family won’t refuse to help you just because. And the church turn away a member who was in need? Unlikely.”So he tried another tack. “What if your parents lost everything they had? Would you be willing to take them in?””What? MY parents? They’ve done all right for themselves. They’re not going to need that. But, yes. I would.””In your little house?”
Now, that comment threw me for a loop even moreso than did his earlier one. We hadn’t discussed my house at all, really. How did he Dare to presume what kind of place I lived in? Let alone what I could do to help family? Was not Family the very reason I was in Chattanooga in the first place? 10 years ago, I would have attacked on that point. Immediately, and vehemently (and probably overly loudly). And I would have lost all track of the conversation up to that point. As it was, I still found myself thrust out of control of the discussion and for the 2nd time that week, I was “handled” and diverted to another topic. On the diversion, I did, at least, score an important point. One that threw my uncle for a loop and had him looking rather thoughtful the next day as I was getting ready to leave on my return trip (a rather more leisurely cruise on a circuitous route that would allow me to visit friends and family in several other states).My uncle found it rather shocking that my wife and I are on the very verge of poverty, as according to the government. He thought that we were in the upper half of the middle class. Being VERY upper middle class, himself and having always lived in upper middle class neighbourhoods, he had never considered that someone who wasn’t well off could afford his own home, let alone a home big enough to take in his parents (or his mother in law, as it will soon be in my case). No $40k/year can’t be lower middle class. It’s just not possible.
Now, I’m fairly proud of that point. The rest of the family has given up trying to talk politics with him or his wife (my dad’s sister) and it was the first real point (according to my father’s family) that he has clearly understood in decades. But I still lost the debate. I lost it despite an opening he gave me that was wide enough to drive an entire armoured division through:
“I wouldn’t want to take My parents in.”
His words. He doesn’t believe in the most important safety net in the world because He doesn’t think he has it in him to help his own family. And this is where I Should have gone off. So if you will bear with me, I would like to take the remainder of this diary to make the argument I should have a week ago…
“Wait. Stop right there. “My world of consequences and taking responsibility for your actions and helping your family when they’re in need is not compassionate. I don’t agree, but we’ll just accept that for the sake of argument. What you seem to want, though is to Force me to take care of people I don’t know just because you don’t want to take care of your own family.”No. That IS what you said. You wouldn’t want to take your parents into your house in their time of need, so I have to pay an exhorbitant amount of money so that the government can do what you should. And make no mistake. It Is force. If I don’t pay, the government sends men with guns to lock me up.”I don’t get it. Where’s the compassion? Where does the Bible (he’s very active in his church) define compassion as ‘forcing others at gunpoint to take care of your family in their time of need’? These are Your parents. How are you being compassionate when you say you wouldn’t sacrifice a single bedroom so that they had a roof over their heads but you Will force me to pay for one elsewhere? How is any of this right?”If my parents were to screw up, or my brother or my sisters or any of my wife’s siblings, then there would be a place in my house for them. For as many of them as I could make room for. Even if it meant selling a bunch of what really is no more than useless crap just so I could finish the basement or build an addition to my house. And the same for my friends. Because these are my Family and my Friends and those words and the people they are assigned to mean something to me.”So, as you can probably see, you have managed to confuse me. I just don’t understand. I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to live in my world?”