Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some are More Equal than Others

"And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required."  Luke 12:48

As a young doctor, I felt it was time to speak out at a public forum on keeping our local hospital strong. So what did I do? I decided to quote from George Orwell's book, Animal Farm.

Although this was a serious forum, that addressed important issues, bringing up a quote from Orwell was quite pleasing to me, probably because Orwell's book on animals was being played right in front of me, by people.

The crux of the argument was this: should some doctors receive extra taxpayer money from our local hospital district, while other doctors in private practice get nothing? Although the long-term outcome of this issue resulted in the doctors who relied on subsidies all leaving town and those in private practice like myself staying, the issue is much larger than one town hall meeting. It's about a philosophy of living. Are some more equal than others? Or are we all equal?

As a child, I was raised in a relatively strict Catholic household. For example, my first piano teacher was a nun, and she held a ruler in her hand and struck me whenever I played a wrong note. We went to church every Sunday, said our prayers at every meal, and were taught to read the Bible. While these routines were important, the messages behind the religion were what counted, namely:
  • The strong must help the weak.
  • The healthy must help the sick.
  • The adults must protect the children.
  • The rich must help the poor.

All of us have been given something of value that others lack, and in my childhood I was raised to always believe that God had given me "much" and that was the truth. Therefore, basic morality demanded that I serve others and give back "much." This was why that nun hit my fingers with a ruler--- she knew that I was given the gift of musical talent, and damn it, I better cultivate that gift or else.

Which brings us back to the city forum, where some doctors where claiming that they deserved a special subsidy, but the other doctors in town did not. Their reasons were specious at best, but it made me think of two things. First, shouldn't the strong help the weak? And secondly, shouldn't all of the doctors be treated equally? How could I make this point in a way that wasn't preachy, that treated people with respect? Thankfully, George Orwell saved the day.

In Animal Farm, the pigs (think corrupt politicians) initially promoted the idea that "All animals are equal." As the story developed, the pigs eventually wanted more power. They wanted to live in the house, they wanted better food, they wanted more. But they were constrained by their initial saying that all animals are equal. So what did they do?

By taking small, almost imperceptible steps, they gradually changed the saying to "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." This is what was happening right in front of my eyes. Those who were given much, were focused on getting more. Those that were in positions of power were saying that they were more equal than others.

What did I do? I spoke up and said in so many words that we should not be like the pigs in Animal Farm.  We should consider everyone in our community as equals, and make it our public morality to help the weak, the poor, and the disadvantaged. Although my argument did not carry the day right then, ultimately all of those who were asking for special privileges left town looking for greener pastures, and those of us keeping our heads down and focusing on our work stayed.

I'd like to think that through our actions, our community treated one another as equals, and that in some way, all of us had strengths we could share with others. We rejected the pig philosophy that some are more equal than others.

Looking back, here's what I learned.
  • Reading the classics, like Animal Farm, can have a lasting and important impact on our lives. Classic books are classic for a good reason.
  • Moral principles may be challenged in the short run, but they will prevail in the long run.
  • Quoting from classical literature (including the Bible) can help focus our thoughts, and see things more clearly and more deeply.
  • Mom and Dad were right.
Here's a partial list of some of my favorite fictional works of literature I've read over the years. What are yours?