Sunday, June 1, 2014
© 2014, the Institute for Applied Common Sense
I considered entitling this post, “In Defense of Donald Sterling, the U. S. Veterans Administration, and Malaysia Airlines." However, out of a desire to have this piece potentially relevant in a month or two, I chose to go with a more universal and hopefully enduring theme.
So what do,
(a) the unfortunate disclosure of a private conversation involving an NBA team owner and the object of his unrequited desires;
(b) the purported failure of the U.S. Veterans Administration to timely deliver health care services to a relatively small number of veterans;
(c) the continuing mystery about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370;
(d) the Washington State mudslide which killed at least 41 people, the danger of which has been known for 60 years; and
(e) the South Korean ferry accident resulting in 288 deaths…
all have in common? I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Something has been bothering me since I exited the womb 62 years ago. It appears that while my Mother was pregnant with me, she read the paperback edition of Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History, all 79 pages of it. What struck me via osmosis was the discussion of two things which significantly distinguish humans from other animals.
The first is that most animals have some natural armor, skills or various mechanisms which permit them to survive in the wild, somewhat independently, early on. We humans are totally dependent upon older humans for quite some time. The second is that although we are not endowed with natural defensive skills and survival equipment from the get-go, our big brains permit us to record, teach, invent, and share (over generations) the cumulative results of the past human experience in preparation for moving forward.
So, what do all 5 events have in common? In my view, the most dangerous of expectations, namely, that “someone else will do it or take care of it.”
We exit the womb with that expectation genetically engrained. Whether the acquisition and preparation of food, our transportation to the toilet, or cleaning up our resultant mess, we start out with an expectation that someone else will do it or take care of it. That notion continues throughout our lives.
Over the past 4 months, in thinking about the 5 events listed above, there was a commonality of something which started to emerge, but on which I could not place my finger. And then it hit me.
Although I had a significantly shorter period of time to think about it compared to the first dangerous expectation, I developed an appreciation of the second dangerous expectation by being the primary caregiver for my 93 year old Father. Up until roughly 88 years of age, he was an example of exceptional, octogenarian health. He amazed everyone who came into contact with him.
Little did I suspect 5 years ago that he had a progressive, neuromuscular movement disorder. He often repeats the phrase, “Once a man, twice a child,” the truth of which I appreciate more each day. Despite the complexities associated with his care, and the fact that I have a sibling with whom to share the experience, there are many single kids who have to take care of both parents. Imagine the complexity of the V.A.’s responsibilities.
So what is this second most dangerous expectation? That someone will do it the way that we expect, or in the manner in which we want it to be done.
All of this came together for me about 3 weeks ago during a discussion about the South Korean ferry accident. A reporter noted that because of the prevalence of Confucianism in that part of the world, there is an implicit social contract between citizens and their rulers that, “We do what you ask, and we expect you to take care of us.”
Until fairly recently, I did not realize that I was entitled to Veterans Administration medical benefits, primarily because I had top flight private insurance coverage. However, I recently found myself without that privilege. I’ve been in the V.A. health system for a year now. I am convinced that I am the system’s No. 1 supporter. When I had the luxury of private insurance, I was treated by some of the best doctors in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, associated with UCLA, USC, and groups who took care of million dollar professional athletes.
I now receive comparable, if not better, health care from the V.A. Why? Because the Durham, NC facility, which is across the street from and associated with Duke University Med Center.
I’m as happy as a clam, Sam I am. In fact, there are days when I go onto the MyHealth.VA.Gov site, just to revel in the level of care and information available to me. This experience has far exceeded my expectations. I also realize that not every facility in the V.A. system is the same and not every vet will receive my level of service.
One of the pitfalls associated with focus on the individual and the pursuit of individual happiness is that we can forget that things are relative and that different people have different values. We also have a tendency to forget how interdependent humans are, which is a mercurial concept in and of itself.
A couple of years ago, former President Bill Clinton was asked to comment on the stoning of a young woman by family members in a Middle Eastern country. He opened with the phrase, “In a shame-based society….” I honestly do not recall what he said thereafter; however, since then I have repeatedly questioned whether he actually used the word “shame,” or the word “blame.”
The head of Veterans Affairs was recently pressured to resign. However, I found myself asking whether our primary goal was to address and correct the management deficiencies, or assess blame and validate our notions of responsibility.
It occurred to me that management or human governance is not that far removed from addressing cancer. Isn’t our ultimate goal in the treatment of a disease to remove its effects in the short term, and address its causes in the long? It seems to me that if we as a society are truly interested in addressing problems on a long term basis, our attention might best be directed to the underlying causes and systemic issues, recognizing the less than perfect component of human behavior, and less on fault and attributing blame.
Because the reality is that we, as humans (on an individual and collective level), are responsible for the systems we create and mismanage. No level of management can completely address that. It would be delusional and less than productive on our part to think so.
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