I was watching the evening news (come on I’m 70) and there was a piece on protestors demanding that the lockdown be ended. Most of them had signs that signaled they were badly in need of their job’s ordinary income. As someone whose business plan involves a weekly collection I do get that. Being unemployed or furloughed or laid off is not only fearful, it can life threatening. But there was one sign that really caught my attention. It read, “My rights don’t end where your fear begins”. To me, that sign said something that was much more than, “I need my job back, let me support myself and my family or heal this struggling economy.” Rather it said, “My rights come first, not your safety or your fear for yourself or others you love.”
Surely this pandemic, as it slowly and painfully unfolds, will require from us a cooperative attitude that will allow us to continue to understand what it is that we are facing and to determine how we best, as “one nation under God”, work to overcome it. It will determine how we negotiate the complicated reality of our interconnected existence one with another.
I am long immersed and trained and educated in the Roman Catholic understanding of the common good. We are brothers and sisters made in the image and likeness of God. Our common humanity is both God’s gift and our challenge. Our understanding of our “rights” flows from our understanding of human dignity. We accept and reverence human dignity, from which come human rights. We also accept that often enough, the good of the many takes precedence over exercise of individual rights. We are both individuals and we belong to the collectivity we call society; both are truths.
When we accept the collective good supersedes our individual right, we call this acceptance self-sacrifice. We call it creating community. We believe it gives greater opportunity to choose what is most life giving and we know that it opens the door to true love. We Christians call it the wisdom of the Cross. One way to say it is that my rights end when I willingly choose to love another, and then together we determine what truly and really enhances human dignity. True freedom as we all know, is filled with obligation and demand, and these days with fear also. Do you have anyone in your family for whom right now you are afraid?
Which of your God-given, hard earned rights end when the baby cries? Or your young adult breaks the law and is arrested? Or your child or friend wavers in fear and frustration? When do we grow into that maturity that recognizes what I want and have a right to, is now not helpful but rather, selfish? What marriage has a ghost of a chance if each spouse determines that, “My rights come first, last and always; let’s hope there might be some room for you.” Selfishness is not new, loveless marriages are not new, over valuing one truth to the detriment of the common good is not new. Crisis does not necessarily build character, but it certainly does reveal one’s character. So let us engage in the challenge of determining when and how to “reopen” our lives and let us learn from each other so that neither need or fear hijack the conversation.
I’m guessing no nurse would carry the sign “my rights don’t end where your fear begins”. Their grasp of courage and wisdom looms extremely large these days. In our going forward, how about letting them lead us?