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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Senator Edward Kennedy has died after an unexpectedly long battle with a malignant brain tumor.  Admittedly, until a few days ago, I knew very little of his life’s story- the result of a combination of my relative youth and my focus on more current affairs.  My insomnia has, however, afforded me the chance to read and learn more about the Senator’s life and story.  What I have found has left me with a desire to be a better person, to try to make a difference, to struggle to find an opportunity to affect change in situations that may seem devoid of hope.

I’m sure Senator Kennedy would ask the same for himself that he did for his brother when speaking at his funeral, that he “need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”  Now, those very words may  easily used to describe his own life.  The youngest of nine children, Senator Kennedy was often seen by some as the least likely one to succeed in politics; the least likely one to make a difference.  He survived his oldest brother’s death in a war, his sister’s death in a plane crash, the assassination of two brothers, his son’s battle with bone cancer,  his daughter’s battle with lung cancer, the death of his nephew in a plane crash, and the death of his sister earlier this month.   He delivered eulogies at the funerals of his brother, his sister in law, his nephew, and his mother.  His own personal demons followed him throughout his life, as well.  This is in no way an attempt to portray him as a flawless man; instead, a flawed man, handed the hopes of a nation, trying to make some things right.

He championed the rights of those who needed a voice… the family that couldn’t afford health care for their children, the victims of hate crimes, the American worker seeking a competitive wage, the citizens in search of equality.  And he was unapologetic in his views, a trait more of his democratic colleagues should learn to embrace and emulate.  Did he live a perfect life? No. Did he make mistakes along the way? Yes. Like we all do.  He was the baby of a dynasty that had its hopes and dreams shattered, the pieces falling into his lap unexpectedly and tragically.  And he rose to the occasion like very few probably would have done in the face of such adversity.  He became the center, the leader, the father of a family, his family, America’s family, in an instant; whether he wanted to be or not.

Last night I listened to the eulogy he delivered at his brother Bobby’s funeral.  I was surprised that I had never heard it before.  I was surprised that no one had ever encouraged me to, for someone should have.  It’s amazing to me how, forty years later, it resonates so clearly still.  I do not think I have ever heard anything quite that moving, inspiring, positive, and true.  Here is a link.  If you haven’t seen or heard it before, you really should. 

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9JTYnMpRyg

The  current debate over health care reform baffles me.  Senator Kennedy called it the “cause of his life.”  Somehow today it has been reduced to a display of fear and anger by a small fringe of society, fueled by an industry bloated with greed, propagating flat out lies to maintain the status quo.  Somehow it is no longer a debate about health care.  It has become an opportunity for extremists to try to incite fear.  It has become an opportunity for elected officials to play politics to garner votes.  Health care reform is not and should not be a debate about capitalism vs socialism.  It is not and should not be a debate that incites threats of violence.  It is not and should not be a partisan political game used only to try to gain the upper hand at the next elections.  But that is what it has become.  Republican politicians are claiming if Kennedy were there now, because they have so much respect for him, they think compromise could be reached.  I say if they really did respect him, they should buckle down, stop blocking everything, and start working on a health care bill that he would have been proud of… that the American people can be proud of.  But they aren’t going to do that.  And if Kennedy were here, they wouldn’t be doing anything differently than they are now.  It’s just an easy and shameless excuse.

A favorite tactic of the opposition is to quote and wave the constitution, claiming that govenment shouldn’t interfere.  I seem to remember another founding document that states that all men are created equal… and have certain rights, including LIFE, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It is the responsibility of our government to ensure these rights.  Without access to affordable health care, no citizen is guaranteed the right to life in this country.  This may be a capitalist nation, but health care should not be a commodity to be bought and sold by the highest bidder.    The argument that we can’t afford it is wrong both practically and morally.  We have managed to afford a war that could have paid for this reform a dozen times over.  We as a collective nation have a moral obligation to one another to ensure that everyone has access to health care.  There should be no debate.  There is no price tag to be placed on human dignity.

No one in this country should die from a preventable or curable disease.  But many do.

No one in this country should have to choose between keeping their home or paying for their child’s medical bills.  But many do.

No one in this country should put off medical care because of expense, only to discover the condition has worsened and treatment is no longer as successful.  But many do.

No one in this country should go bankrupt because of medical bills.  But many do.

No one in this country should be unable to afford health insurance or unable to obtain health insurance because of pre-existing medical illnesses.  But many are.

No one in this country should lose their health insurance because they lose their job or become ill.  But many do.

Especially not while executives of health insurance companies take home millions of dollars each per year from their companies’ profits.

It baffles me that opponents to reform are the same people decrying abortion as murder.  But where are they once those children are born?  Where are their voices fighting for the right to medical care for those very children they demanded be brought into this world?  Is the fetus more important than the child?  They use the bible and religion to assert the right of government to intrude into the medical decisions of the nation’s women, yet they abhor the idea that the government become involved in helping to insure its citizens that need it most… the poor, the sick, the children.  They use the bible to defend an unborn life but walk away once the umbilical cord is cut, throw their hands in the air and declare it’s not their problem, why should they have to pay for it?  They use the word of God to intrude into other citizens’ private family decisions, and demand their morals be enforced;  then they show no empathy or compassion to the very people , the children, they claimed to be defending once they have been born.

All men are created equal.  The lives of all citizens, regardless of income or status, have the same value.  And no citizen is more qualified or has been granted a special right to decide what another citizen’s life is worth. 

The argument that providing health care to our citizens carries too high of a price tag is ridiculous.  In this nation of consumption, practically burning money for wars, and proudly touting our ability to spend, spend, spend, the argument of cost is void of any substance or morality.  If the health of our citizens is not our primary concern, then what is?  If we are not concerned with making sure everyone has access to medical care when it is needed, with what are we concerned?  If our priorities are not with the sick, the impoverished, and the helpless, then where are our priorities?  What does our nation even stand for anymore if it doesn’t stand for our own citizens health and peace of mind? 

This country was founded on the idea that it be a refuge for those who are persecuted, judged, discriminated against, hungry, and poor. Now those very groups of people we sought to invite and protect are left alone and tossed aside to be forgotten.  That indifference, condemnation, and ambivalence will turn our country into the very entity our nation’s founders were fleeing. 

I like to think that people are basically good.  I like to think that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and love for one another, even if it doesn’t benefit them directly.  I like to think that the potential for extraordinary  kindness lies inside every person.  I fear I am wrong.

We are not here to police and condemn one another.  We are here to support and love one another, and I have seen examples of such selflessness in both grand displays and small every day gestures.  Sadly there are those who will never strive for such a world.  Nothing that we do seems to satisfy these people.  Their interests seem to lie only within themselves, and their lens with which they view the world is myopic and stagnant.  They seem to have no ability to empathize or care. 

But so many more people do care.  Many of them may have forgotten that they do in the current atmosphere of partisan politics and rhetoric. But I believe their hearts, when open, recognize the need for compassion and selflessness.  We are all here at the same time with the same purpose.  We have these short lives to live, and in that time we try to understand why we are here and how we can make a difference. It is in no one’s best interest to vilify or disempower his neighbor.  It is in no one’s best interest to select who is worth protection, who is worth the expense of saving, or who is worth fighting for.  And it is no one’s job or right to make that judgment. 

Our country was founded on the belief that all men are created equal.  And that all men hold certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t it time we live up to that statement?  If people don’t have access to affordable health care, shouldn’t we all be upset about that?  Shouldn’t we all care just because it’s the right and moral thing to do?  I don’t understand any argument that would deny that to our nation’s citizens.  I don’t understand how anyone, especially the christians of our nation, could not think that providing health care to our citizens is a moral obligation.  I don’t understand the apathy and contempt for those in need.   We are a nation of immigrants.  We were the ones in need when we came to this country… in search for something better.  Now, finally, let’s BE better.

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2 responses »

  1. Thank you so much for this piece. I found myself tearing up while reading it. It is so hard to believe that in our “advanced, civilized” society we even have to be having this conversation. Thank you so much for pointing me back to Senator Kennedy. He truly was a point of light wasn’t he? Remembering his legacy reminds me that we all have to do our part, we have to keep fighting for what is right. We are all in this together. Again thank you, I look forward to reading you work in the future. ~peace, Suzi

    Reply
  2. This was a really good essay. I read an article in today’s WaPo, about how every Tuesday, he would go to this one elementary school in DC, and read to the kids. Every Week. That’s just so…decent. He actually was the change he wished to see, you know? He worked on every level to affect change.

    Reply

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