On Care and Accountability

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Not everyone is equal. I think it is okay to say that now. Certainly we are all of special worth in the eyes of our Creator and we do have equal rights under the U.S. constitution. But we are not all equal. A child can see that. Our intelligence differs widely. Some of us have multiple gifts and others of us are single talent people. Some are born leaders; others are natural followers. Some have outgoing personalities that propel them toward success while others are more introverted and cautious. Some people are born with brains, good looks and charm; some are homely and dull. Some people are born with deficits; some are born into deficits. Some will squander their privilege while others will capitalize on every opportunity. Some will overcome daunting disadvantages while others sink into blame and self-pity. But why do I belabor the point? Because the time has finally arrived when we can venture out from behind our timidity and admit to ourselves that inequities are not necessarily the same as injustices. Which is to in no way minimize the damaging effects of injustice. To be sure, many inequities are created by human malevolence, but many more - perhaps most - are not. To pretend that, given equal opportunity, all people could do equally well is a romantic and altogether unhelpful notion. Our hearts may desire it to be so and political correctness may keep us from publicly saying otherwise, but kindhearted denial is hardly a kindness. We are equal in neither capacity nor potential. We are equal only in responsibility. Of course, there will always be those among us who must rely upon the responsibility of others - infants, Alzheimer's patients, the brain damaged. But for the rest of us, we are responsible to do the best with the uneven hands we have been dealt. Remove this personal accountability and atrophy of the spirit sets in.

Anyone who has been in the helping professions for any length of time will readily admit that you can't fix people. Nothing is more disheartening than to invest enormous amounts of compassion and energy in counseling, treating, training, and connecting an addicted person only to have him throw it all away by returning to his destructive patterns. No amount of supervision or intense support can produce moral character in another. It is only when one is ready to take responsibility for his own life and face the daily discipline of right decision-making that support becomes beneficial. It is true with all of life. When we do for others what they can do for themselves, we cripple them.

Easy for you to say, I hear the retort of one beset by adversity, easy to preach responsibility to others when you've been born into privilege. I must concede that one who has life easy, who has been shaped by the security of loving parents and blessed with a comfortable livelihood, can hardly relate to the powerlessness of the broken whose best efforts are insufficient to lift them above bare survival. But to whom much has been given much is required. The strong and well bear the greater weight for care. Which is not to say that one whom life has short-changed is exempted from pulling his weight, as well as lending a hand to other struggling souls. Both achiever and survivor share a common responsibility - to make the most of their unequal lots in life.

Empowerment is a popular word these days. It may be a misnomer. People, like butterflies, have inbred capacity to emerge into creatures of unique beauty. But intervene in the chrysalis process when the caterpillar is undergoing its transformation and the process may be aborted. Assist the emerging butterfly as it struggles to break out of its cocoon and it may never develop the strength to fly. We may protect the cocoon from predators, even shield it from winter's hostile blast, but do more than create the conditions for timely emergence and we will cause damage. Butterflies, like people, cannot be empowered. They will emerge toward their uniquely created potential, given a conducive environment.

How then do we care for those in need without doing them harm? Social policies over the past four decades have taught us that programs intended to help can rather quickly become entitlements and entitlements engender unhealthy dependency. Our challenge, then, is to couple unconditional kindness with appropriate opportunities that foster one's growth toward full potential. The gestation time will vary widely. Some will surprise us with their strength and quickness. Others will disappoint us with their lack of motivation and slowness. But all must assume full responsibility for their own rate of progress. Or regress. We who would help do a disservice to offer relief from the essential discipline of their climb.

Bob Lupton

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