Thursday, September 17, 2009

Health Care and Generosity II

A few weeks back, Algernon (Notes from a Burning House)and Aaron suggested I do an op-ed piece on health care and Buddhism, based on comments I made in this post ( Health Care and Generosity). Well, I wrote the following article and sent it around to both newspapers and to a few of the well-known Buddhist magazines (you can guess which ones.) So far, not a peep, not even a one line rejection e-mail. As a writer who sends out work frequently enough, I'm used to the silence on the other end. It's no big deal, really. So, here's the article for you all to read. I continue to reflect on how much this whole discussion about health care in the U.S. has had a strong undertone of miserliness, even as we spend billions and billions on our military and on underwriting the bad deeds of our financial institutions.

Health Care and the Spirit of Generosity

There has been an enormous about of animosity displayed in the recent health care reform debates. People toting guns and signs morphing President Obama into Hitler have arrived at town hall meetings to shout at politicians they disagree with. Others, running events in support of President Obama’s plan, have banned from attending anyone who supports a single payer system or anything different from what’s currently being offered. And people on all sides of the issue have ramped up the rhetoric against immigrants using the health care system, especially those who are in the country illegally.

Once you get past all the screaming story lines, most Americans are looking for the answers to three questions. Whose money will be used to pay for reforms? How expensive will it be? And will such changes benefit me personally? This is true even amongst Buddhist practitioners.

As one of the 47 million Americans who are uninsured, I have a big stake in the outcome of these debates. The longer the issue of health care reform has been bandied about, the more I have come to notice what is missing from nearly every town hall forum, talk show discussion, and political commentary: generosity. It seems that nearly everyone, even many people that support a single payer plan, are trying to figure out a way to not help their neighbors.

The recent economic crisis has been a difficult time for the majority of people in the United States. It’s only natural during times like this for people to cut their spending and start looking more critically at issues like taxes and the expense of public programs. In addition, when times are hard, many people rely on the support of others who are like-minded and understand where they are coming from. Often these people are members of a spiritual community.

What I have observed is that every major spiritual tradition places a strong emphasis on generosity. From Christianity’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” to Islam’s inclusion of generosity in the five pillars of faith, again and again the call of spiritual life brings us back to giving to others. The same is true of my tradition: Zen Buddhism.

Among Buddha’s teachings is the following: the root of all suffering can be traced back to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. When you examine the way much of the debate over health care has gone, it’s easy to see all three of these are largely at play. Those who believe that they government wants to institute “death panels” are terribly deluded. Others are using the debate mainly as an opportunity to vilify President Obama and express their racially-charged hatred towards him. And the vast majority of us are locked in patterns of reactions coming out of our greed. We want the best. We want it now. And we don’t want to pay for anyone who doesn’t fit our criteria of “being worthy.”

What is driving your particular view of the health care debate? Are you, like me, afraid that you won’t receive the help you need when you are sick or in an accident? Are you also, like me, concerned about money a little bit too much?

Another of Buddha’s teachings is that we are all interconnected. That what we think of as our “self” is actually made up of elements of everything else in the world. In other words, there is a fluidity to our lives that runs counter to the notion that we are individuals with no relationship or responsibility to the rest of the world. The easiest way to illustrate this in terms of health is to think about how quickly a virus can spread through the population. Not only can we literally pass illnesses between each other, but for a time, that very virus actually changes our bodies.
I really wonder where the Buddhist voices are on this vital issue. Where are the calls for placing health care into the larger context of interdependence? Where are Buddhist voices working to wake the rest of us from our greed and fear induced resistance to a better health care system? In my opinion, we cannot afford to continue to let the three poisons dominate the conversation about health care reform. No matter what plan is ultimately chosen, we would all be better off if it is driven by generosity, and not out of anger and an obsession with the financial bottom line.

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