Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bailing out Uncle Jack (and Greece, and Haiti . . . )

I was about ten or eleven years old the night my father was in the kitchen talking to my mother, really angry. I remember he was in his "work" clothes, the ones he wore to do major jobs around the house, like fix the roof. Whatever he was doing had been interrupted by a babbling, pleading phone call from his brother Jack. Another call. Another arrest for drunk and disorderly. Jack lived in Youngstown, 50 miles away. Couldn't he call someone else? There isn't anyone else. You're my brother. What about Louise? She told me she wouldn't come. She hung up on me. Ed, you're my only hope. You're my brother.
My father was telling my mother angrily, This is it. This is the last time. As far as I know it was. And later, how much later I don't know, Jack dried up. I remember him at a wedding, showing me the 12 steps that had saved his life. When he pointed to each step on a card he carried in his wallet, his hands trembled. He had gone very far downhill before he hit bottom.

My father figured it out on his own I imagine - he had just kept bailing out Jack, and Jack just kept getting arrested. My father had a job to go to, he couldn't be up all night driving to Youngstown and back, he needed to live a regular healthy life, get his sleep, maintain his health and family. Then there would have been the money involved back before credit cards and ATM's, money I suppose was never repaid.

We are overpopulating and over-stressing our planet, and so these days we see large bodies of people falling into wreckage. When it's economic disaster that threatens, we talk about "bail-out," and we say, Our economic stability depends on theirs. When there's been a natural disaster, we mount "rescue missions" in the name of simple humanity. But in truth, both are often the result of a mixture of bad judgment and bad luck. The economic mess in Greece is rooted in the way people live there, people who want to retire early, who are willing to let the very rich escape taxation (sound familiar?). The earthquake in Haiti was a double disaster because people lived there without infrastructure or civil government, so that everything just fell in. Building codes, it turns out, save lives.

We are not directly involved in cleaning up the current mess with the Greek economy, though we will not be immune from what happens there. In any case, the fact is, we have plenty to do on our own shores, cleaning up our own mess in the Gulf - an entire coastal economy and culture destroyed by our lust for the fun things cheap energy brought our way. We can turn our compassion in this direction. And we do need to be cautious to avoid thoughtless or "idiot compassion," which Pema Chodron explains here. Maybe Uncle Jack will benefit from serving his time.


  1. Not discounting the help of such organizations as the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations that do come to help during disasters.. i agree with you about bailing countries like us out from our problems. Its called FOREIGN AIDE.. and it usually comes in the form of cash or goods which the poor and those who really need them do not even get a cent. For example, the used clothing that's sent as aide which the government cant pay the Customs fee are sold to businesspeople who resell them as used clothes to the public. We have a law against that, but like pirated movies, they are sold openly. Your aide never goes to the people you intend them to. That's one problem about bailing someone out. Corruption.

    Second is, bailing out someone always comes with a fee, 'we bail you out but you do this for us'. Government to government bail outs usually end up in the simple people being sold off. My teacher once told me, 'being poor doesn't mean groveling. Make sure that when you give, you keep their dignity intact.' I'm afraid that most foreign aide don't do that. It's called, Foreign Policy.

    Teacher: The secret in helping someone out is 'sustainability'. How long can you keep this up? And what can you do so that these people will be able to help themselves once you're gone?

  2. Idiot Compassion!! If there is one topic I think is not discussed enough, it's this. Actually there are many we hear too much about and not enough of "REALLY" important ones, like this. I have no qualms turning my back on people who have gotten themselves into a situation of their own doing, and they continue to do so, with the notion in the back of their mind that when it hits the fan someone will bail them out. Good for you Grandma!!