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.