On Privilege

by admin on

The waiting room was already full when I walked into the clinic. Sniffling construction workers blowing their reddened noses, crying babies pulling at their mothers' blouses, slumping seniors with their walkers standing ready before them - around me was a cross-section of humanity fallen through the cracks between our private and public healthcare systems. I needed a quick prescription from my physician friend whose vision created this small safety net of care. "Is Bill in?" I inquired of the harried receptionist whose desk was heaped with a clutter of lab reports, medical files and phone messages. "No," she replied, giving me a who-are-you-to-refer-to-the-doctor-by-his-first-name look. "Who is the physician on duty this morning?" I persisted, feeling a bit put off. "Sign in and have a seat," she said with practiced inattention. "The doctor will see you as soon as he can." I sat down as told. By first count, there were at least a dozen people ahead of me. If there were only one physician to examine all these patients, I could be here all morning - maybe even longer. I glanced at my watch. It was now past nine. As I started thinking of the meetings I would have to reschedule, I felt an impatience building inside of me. All I needed was a simple prescription, less than a minute of the doctor's time. Wasting a half day was just absurd! I sat and fumed for five minutes until the growing frustration finally pushed me to a decision. No, I would not blow a whole morning waiting in line for a little piece of paper. I walked back over to the receptionist's desk.

"I'm Dr. Lupton," I said with as charming a smile as I could muster. "Could I speak to the clinic director?" This obviously placed me in a different category. The young lady disappeared in haste through a door marked "off limits to patients" and reappeared in a moment followed by a curious and altogether courteous middle-aged man who immediately invited me back to his office. This was all the access I needed. As soon as the director learned of my support of the clinic and my long-standing relationship with its founder, he slipped me quickly into an examining room and within five minutes I had my prescription in hand. I pretended to be oblivious to the ugly stares as I walked back through the waiting room on my way out.

Access. That's what privilege gets us. Privilege moves us to the front of the line. It gets us into places where others cannot go. It gets us exclusive benefits, special treatment. Money can often buy it. But so can social status and connections. And it makes others envy us, but mostly resent us. "Is there something wrong with privilege?" I asked myself as I drove away from the clinic in plenty of time for my next appointment.

I tried to remember if I had heard a sermon on this subject. I could not. Social class is something we seem a bit uncomfortable talking about publicly in our culture. Maybe because one of our cherished national myths is that we all are equal. We love our log-cabin-to-white-house stories. Our disdain for a caste system, like in India let's say, is because there is no opportunity to move up the social ladder. Yet privilege and class go hand in hand - the higher the class, the greater the privilege. And even within each social class there is a hierarchy, a pecking order, that determines who gets to eat first and best. It's a principle of nature. It keeps everyone striving. What makes privilege palatable to us is our fundamental belief that anyone can have it if they work hard enough. Privilege is good, we could reason - a positive motivating factor, something to aspire to, the legitimate reward for diligence and persistence and prudence and sound investment.

So why did I feel so impure when I left the clinic? Why did I find myself working so hard to rationalize my behavior? Perhaps it was the resentful stares that made it so hard to dismiss the incident from my mind. But would it have been fundamentally different had I entered and left through a back door so that no one in the waiting room would have known? Would it have been more righteous if I had patiently waited my turn and wasted an entire morning waiting on a one-minute prescription?

Eventually, reluctantly, my thoughts drifted toward scripture. After all, it is the book I say I try to live by. The random surfacing of parables and passages that percolated in my mind was hardly reassuring. A banquet where guests were posturing for the best seats…Jesus interrupting his day to touch sick people…"I came not to be served but to serve"…"the last will be first and the first will be last"…"the greatest among you is the servant of all"…"put the interests of others ahead of your own"…"see others as more important than yourself"… No, not reassuring at all! In every passage, however, privilege was assumed, not denied - nothing intrinsically wrong with some having more and some less. But how one uses his privilege, how privilege affects one's attitude toward others - that was quite obviously the critical issue.

Did I believe that my time was more valuable than those sitting in the waiting room? I cringed when the thought occurred to me. Did I think of myself as more important than construction laborers in mud-caked boots and under-employed moms with watery-eyed infants and hobbling senior citizens? If someone had asked me those questions, I would have responded with an emphatic "absolutely not!" But my actions would have betrayed me.

One cannot un-ring a bell. I cannot undo my clinic visit. I can repress it and go on. Or I can allow the angry glares of less-privileged patients to serve as a corrective to a seductive tendency - the powerful pull of privilege to make one feel superior to others.

So do I use my privilege to serve my own interests or not? Of course I will, much of the time, no matter how much of a servant-leader I aspire to be. Only a handful of Mother Teresa types have ever successfully resisted the temptation. And even Mother Teresa didn't die destitute on a Calcutta street. A more manageable question is this: am I willing to honor those in line ahead of me as people worthy of my respect and care, or will I continue to view them simply as those I need to find a way around? I can't help wondering if, in the economy of the Kingdom, a morning of assisting seniors with their walkers and offering stressed-out mothers relief from their fussy toddlers might not have been more significant appointments than the "important" meetings I hurried away to make.

Bob Lupton

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