A few days ago, a young person railed at me over the phone for at least an hour. Ours was a fraught and uneven conversation, during which I was accused, because of my year of birth and the current world situation, of being part of the cause of all that is wrong everywhere. I was accused of being selfish and told to "check my privilege". I was told there was no way I could possibly understand how young adults today are trying to cope with economic inequities caused, in large part, by me and others my age.
I've been living with those painful words in my head for several days now, alternating between anger and tears, wondering if they're true -- both in general and in personal terms.
I've come to the conclusion that there is some truth in the accusation.
I am privileged.
I was born in Canada, a country which still for the most part tries to live up to its objectives of "peace, order and good government", enshrined in the text of the British North America Act (aka the Constitution Act) of 1867, at the country's formal confederation.
My parents were Caucasian, from a long line of Scots and English Caucasians -- farmers, green grocers, gardeners, wood-workers, artists and artisans -- and they'd been happily married for 11 years when I was born.
Well...sort of married. My mother, age 36 at my birth, was widowed seven months earlier when my father, 47, died as a result of ongoing stress on his heart, exacerbated by his service in the second World War.
My mother remarried when I was almost five, bringing in to my life a step-father and two step-siblings. One of them -- my brother, older by about 5 years -- had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of two. My sister was younger than I by 14 months; we were all expected to get along.
At that tender age, I was asked if I wanted to be adopted by my step-father, so I would have the same last name as the rest of the family. I declined. I liked my last name just fine. Remember -- I was five at the time. It took me years to figure out how much this decision at that very young age, made with all the logic of a five-year-old, rankled my step-father.
My growing up was relatively happy, but our family was not the Brady Bunch and our home was not portrayed by either Father Knows Best or the Donna Reid Show. My step-father, too, had served in the Canadian army in WWII, and had been shot and wounded in France, losing two fingers on his right hand. He never spoke of his war service, but served faithfully on the board of the local Legion, and was active in services and parades every Remembrance Day.
As we got into our teens, the extent of what would now be considered PTSD in the life of my step-father became more obvious in the rancorous atmosphere that surfaced at home, with arguments between my parents that woke us up at night and later, in arguments with me as I discovered the world of politics and the events going on around us -- particularly south of the border, with the Viet Nam war and racial unrest. I was berated for being scholarly and for wanting to discuss these sorts of issues. In my step-father's mind, there was no issue. If you were called up, you went, and that was that. The Powers That Be had to have their reasons for being at war; you didn't argue with them.
I was able to go to university, thanks in large part to the Canadian Department of Veterans' Affairs -- and my father's death due to the trauma of war. Otherwise, it would have been a stretch indeed. My mother stayed at home to care for us -- and particularly our brother, as his muscular dystrophy progressed. A bright young man, I gave him my books to study while I was in high school, because he never got past Grade 7 in the school. Those were the days before wheel-chair access and other things more helpful for children with special needs today. He was tutored at home for Grade 8, but after that...
Growing up we did have the pleasure of summers at a cottage my parents built with the help of friends, on a bay in the St. Lawrence River. We all went to camps -- my sister and I to a church-run camp and later Girl Guide camp in the Laurentians, and my brother to a special camp for handicapped children in the Eastern Townships. While we were away, our parents got time to themselves and so usually travelled -- camping -- themselves, never visiting us at camp. They also took us on road trips, tenting under canvas, around Niagara and around Gaspe and the Maritimes. These were fun, interesting and challenging, as Dad's tendency to revert to army sergeant came out when we were setting up and taking down our campsite. At the ages of 8, 9 and 10, my sister and I weren't very good at following orders...
Eventually I graduated university, married, and moved West. I married a man who'd been diagnosed at age seven with Type 1 Diabetes. In hope and optimism, we tried not to make that matter, but over time, it dominated our relationship, and impacted all of our family life, which included two children.
By the time our son was two, it was clear that my husband's illness was having an impact on his kidneys and his eyesight. He left work and spent the rest of his life on a disability pension, provided not by his former employer (he had a pre-existing condition, after all), but by his contributions to the Canada Pension Plan that also had a provision for disability. I became the main wage-earner in the family, and in 1989 we moved from a two-storey home to one that was -- except for the basement -- all on one level, so that in the future it might be easier for my husband to navigate.
All we ever wanted for our kids was that they would grow up knowing a loving family, a stable and happy household, a few privileges (there's that word again!) -- like opportunities for trips, music lessons, education, out-of-school activities (soccer, Beavers, Brownies, Guides, drama school and camps)...but eventually the disease filled our home. Over time, even as we tried to 'keep it all together', it took his kidneys, damaged his heart, and lead to the loss of both of his legs. During all of this time our kids were growing up. There was some 'gallows humour' involved -- especially when there were shipments of medical supplies or times when it was explained to friends, "Don't mind Dad; he's on drugs" -- but truth be told, it was exhausting, challenging and painful.
My mother, widowed again, had come to live in our city, and my sister and I shared responsibility for ensuring she got to doctor's appointments, etc. She wanted to go to church; ensuring that happened -- followed by lunch and a shopping trip -- meant a day out every three weeks or so. At times both she and my husband were in hospital -- different hospitals, at different ends of the city. My days became rounds of work, hospital visits, meals, and sometimes ensuring our son -- now the only child at home -- got to his part-time job, got home from it, or wherever he needed to be.
During the operation to remove the second of my husband's legs (below the knee), he had two cardiac arrests as the surgeons were closing the wound. My son was working part-time, and was due to be picked up and taken to a sleep-over at the home of a friend. I was blessed to get that friend's mom on the phone, and arrange for her to pick up my son and take him home, agreeing to explain as calmly as possible that "your mom had to go to the hospital to be with your dad".
The church community to which we belonged was helpful -- but only to a limited degree. Though an Anglican parish, it had an 'evangelical' bent which, the (now retired) priest in charge explained to me once, was the bane of his existence. "Evangelicals have a hard time understanding grief". Try as he might, he was unable to stop the "Why are you sad? You should be happy! You're a Christian!" perspective from eating away at our son. The congregation's prayers focused on my husband's healing, ignoring the needs of the rest of us unless we specifically went up for prayer. The youth leaders refused to address grief and loss with the teens in the congregation. I felt helpless in the face of it all -- and angry -- but I couldn't abandon my soul to nothingness, so I kept going.
There were other medical crises over time...each of which I tried to manage without undue upset at home, but eventually this balancing act took its toll. The cracks in the life we'd hoped for widened with time, but the dam didn't break until some years after my husband's death. All of us -- me, my son and my daughter -- have been affected deeply, and the impact continues to colour our lives, each of us dealing with it in our own ways.
By birthdate (post-war), birthplace, race, up-bringing (solidly middle-class, because there actually was a middle class in those years), and opportunities for education and "getting ahead" -- yes, at least by the strict definition of the word.
But in my faith practice, 'privilege' comes with a requirement: service.
In the phone call that started this reflection, I was accused of being selfish, but given no facts, no litany of observations of my behaviour to support that accusation. I do believe that as a whole, each and every one of us has a propensity for selfishness. Left to our own devices, we focus on our needs and wants before those of others.
But in my privileged up-bringing, there was also laid a foundation and expectation of service and giving. "Love your neighbour as you love yourself" was interpreted to mean "Love your neighbour before you love yourself". Do good; don't talk about it. Give; don't talk about it.
And I haven't. I don't, and I won't. I don't do what I do for others to be acknowledged or praised; I don't give financially to get my name on a plaque or a building. I rarely share that I give to causes via Facebook, because though the popular view is that sharing your giving will encourage others to give by example, in my view, it's boasting, and that is just not on.
So yes, young friend, I agree; I am and have been privileged by my place in this world. That I had no control over the origins of my privilege is beside the point. I've tried to make of my life -- by the decisions I've made on my own and with my husband in our life together -- something that would be wholesome, helpful, supportive and loving for our children, others in our family and those around us.
Probably; I'm human, after all. But as with the origins of my privilege, that's beside the point. There are daily opportunities for me to think of myself before others, rather than the other way around. It is an ongoing challenge to get outside myself. My relationship with myself is the safest, least risky one I have, because I am very good at trying to avoid discomfort. One regular place wherein I stumble and fall is during conversations; I agree I'm not a very good listener, with a bad habit of interrupting. Something to continue to work on -- but not the only thing.
I also have to monitor my tendency to sarcasm and righteous anger. These days it is very easy to be outraged 24/7 -- and thus to be accused of not caring, or of being selfish, if you are perceived as not being outraged enough about one or all of the issues out there that demand outrage. But living in a constant state of rage, hopelessness and fear is exhausting and debilitating. In the end, no good comes of it for the individual or for those who need help.
I try to be mindful that none of my blessings is to be taken for granted. I try to "bloom where [I've been] planted" -- to give back to my family, friends and community in quiet, unassuming ways, and this will continue for as much of the future as I may have left on this planet. In the end, whether or not I've "done good" will be taken up with my Maker.
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