Even before a now-infamous, table’s eye video of a man who purports to want to lead this country went viral, I had been reflecting in a very immediate way about the idea of dependency. A little over two weeks ago, Amit woke feeling lousy. The chills were setting in, his head hurt. It was a Wednesday, and I was leaving that night for a 2 day business trip to Chicago. Our extraordinarily dependable nanny, an Indonesian immigrant with a green card, would of course ensure that our children would be fed, clothed, girl to kindergarten, boy to speech therapy, and – because she is indeed extraordinary – loved. She loves them. I love them. We need her. She needs her job. And Amit, as it turned out, needed to go to the hospital.
Without reliving each hairy moment that ensued, Amit’s condition worsened. His headache not only didn’t let up, it was only controllable with regular doses of oxycodone. The fever never went away. And after head CT’s, a spinal tap, and blood tests confirming only what we could have guessed – dude is sick – I called in some of his dear friends, who as luck, good fortune, sacrificing families, better math SAT’s and government loans would have it, became doctors. I also called our dear friend and mentor Bill, who is in his 60’s. I called my parents, though there was little they could do from Cape Cod. Eventually we called Amit’s parents. It was one of those uncomfortable moments when, despite being a fairly competent forty-one year old, I assessed the situation and thought, “S–, I need a grown-up! Where the hell are the grown-ups??”
We spent about four days at Georgetown Hospital, where Amit was lucky to be cared for by talented doctors and nurses. He started to improve. In the meantime, a whole lot of other people with busy lives and schedules, with deadlines and bills and untamed children all their own, stepped up to help us through it all. Between our nanny, my in-laws, the fabulous aunt Patty, and friends willing to arrange play dates, our children didn’t really miss a beat. Through an email chain of friends and their referral sources, we had smart people all over the country studying Amit’s blood counts and trying to think through what his disease might be. Other than my nanny, I certainly didn’t pay those people, and some who stepped in didn’t know Amit or me personally.
I guess you can either celebrate or fear how much we depended on them. For me, even though we take plenty of responsibility for our lives and our family, I’m ready to celebrate the fact that lots of people wanted to give us – and this may sound familiar – food, health care, and housing for our kids, even though it was against their rational self-interest. And not one of them called us victims.
No one doubts that humans need other humans. Everyone has seen examples of stranger helping stranger, and a sense of shared responsibility for one another. On 9/11, the clinics in Washington and New York had to turn people away who wanted to open their own veins for fellow citizens they’d never met. Why? Because our dependence on one another is simply a fact, and we consciously or subconsciously recognize it as core to our humanity. At least I sure as hell hope we do.
This next election will depend in no small part on how millions of people who make up a polity view this notion of dependence. It may depend on our Rorschach response to the other video that went viral last week, in which a pig saves a baby goat from drowning. (I try not to do this, and I promise I would be a repeat offender, but you do have to see this one…)
Why would that pig do that? What was in it for him? Do the pig and the goat belong to the same church? Does the pig owe the goat some debt that he now gets to call even? Did the pig just see a need and say, “I can do something about that?” What if the pig had stood by and said, “well, 47% of goats just didn’t take swim lessons at private summer camp like I did, and now look where it’s gotten them?” Or maybe the pig would simply never view the zoo the same way if he knowingly let that goat die.
And now to that other video.
What Mitt Romney so “inelegantly” expressed in that elegant room is that he as president would define the limits of which humans should need which humans, and under what circumstances, all driven by a belief that we are better off as a polity if those most in want are left to fend for themselves. He dismisses the notion that the most powerful civil tool by which humans in this country have organized themselves – the government – has any role to play in addressing needs, or at least the most basic ones like food and shelter. He does so from the most rarefied post of any human: he appears never to have wanted for anything.
But of course, even parked within the needle’s eye of the 1%, there are things Mitt needs from our federal government. For the happy state of affairs to persist among his set, he needs our government to protect and enforce a tax code wherein the sweat of human labor is taxed far more than passive and enormous gains to investors who, by definition, had enough wealth to invest. So it’s not that government shouldn’t address anyone’s needs; it should go on addressing the needs of those who don’t need much at all. It just depends on who is ranking these needs, and it certainly depends on how those with the power to keep all that going depend on the folks in the chiavari chairs in Boca.
The question, and it is a fair debate, is what is the best way to help the neediest in this country. But I pray we haven’t reached a moment where both that question and our national character has devolved to whether to help them at all. At our darkest economic hour, we had a leader who recognized that freedom from want was worthy of being considered primary to our collective purpose. Nobody even called him a socialist for it. We need a leader like that now.
Sometimes need hits you from out of nowhere. Sometimes you didn’t even think you were vulnerable, and yet even your best laid plans have left you, well, dependent. Everything depends on what happens after that.