Their door was paper thin. They had a sheet taped to the wall to cover the front window. The porch light wasn’t on, probably because it didn’t work. When she opened the skinny door, I let them know that the presents were in the car.
The 4-year-old, blissfully ignorant of her living situation, let this stranger know she had to do her homework. “That sounds like a good idea,” I replied, trying not to let the pity in my heart shape the words coming out of my mouth.
“I have to finish it or my teacher will get mad. Bye!” And with that she scampered off to another room of the house. Judging by the den I was standing in, I assume the room she went to was also poorly lit, smelled of smoke and was in near disarray.
Just 24 hours earlier, I had been at Wal-Mart. I was part of a group who decided to adopt a family from a local nonprofit in an Angel Tree program. As we made our way around the store, we complained about its cleanliness and organization as we debated which toy the 15-month-old would like and which DVD the family might enjoy. Life is so inconvenient when you have time and money.
I decided to deliver our gifts directly to the family; it would save me time. So I called and made arrangements. Even though they didn’t live in the worst part of town and even though I have poorer people living less than a mile from my house, I wasn’t ready for what I saw.
She was young. So was he.
In reading over the wish list that the mom had put together, I imaged the parents would be about my age, or maybe even a little older. They had three kids, for crying out loud. I have about 85 percent of one and I’m not yet 29. As we went up and down the aisles at Wal-Mart on Sunday, I pictured them differently than the reality that I saw on Monday.
Each was maybe 20 years old. As I turned back to my car, followed by the dad, I couldn’t speak. I was stunned.
When we travel to someone else’s neighborhood or visit someone else’s church, we realize the great equalization of humanity. At the core, we’re not all that different from one another, no matter what political pundits and mass media try to tell you. The problem, of course, is that since time and money make life inconvenient, it’s easier to stay put, not take risks and point fingers.
Pointing fingers is so easy when you live in a house with drapes and thick doors.
At some point, as we grow up, we forget the Golden Rule. Due to some kind of capitalist trickery, we begin to think we deserve the gold we have and the rule gets changed. Instead of “treat others as you wish to be treated,” we begin to believe that we must “protect our stuff so no one else can have it.”
The problem with that rule has nothing to do with the notion of ownership, socialism or pie-in-the-sky idealism. The problem is that we’re forgetting that those of us who have are only separated from those who don’t by a very thin line. Call it the genetic lottery, call it luck, call it fate. Just don’t call it deliberate.
This is why I am for health-care reform. This is why I am for programs that help people, even if it means raising my taxes. This is why I have less and less patience with people who claim to practice a certain faith that seems to relegate service to annual week-long trips to another country in order to make a difference while supporting structures that perpetuate inequality in their own back yards. It’s misguided and selfish.
It’s like people are saying, “I know you need help, but I don’t care. You didn’t control where or when you were born, but I can easily demonize you from my comfy couch. So while I get a refill from the kitchen, I want you to go away so I can ignore the reality that you even exist while I shout in unison to what I’m watching on cable news. And after you go away, I’ll look at my bank account and pat myself on the back, lying to myself that I’ve earned something, as if my skin color and parents were both my choice.”
The five bags full of diapers, toys and gift cards won’t lift that family out of poverty. Neither will most of our social programs. I think that’s because we ignore the very thin line between making it and not making it that exists in this country – and in this world. We think the line is thick and paved with hard work and opportunity. In actuality, the line is very thin and people fall across it every day, losing a job, missing a bill and getting sick.
It’s time all of us recognized the sheer luck we’ve had in life and start to act and vote because of it. Because we’re not that different. We just have different sized doors on our houses, living on opposite sides of a very thin line.