I have a backache. It’s not a big one. It doesn’t prevent me from doing what I want to do. I play golf, work out, garden, chop wood. It’s just that I’m getting older, and it’s getting a little harder to get going in the morning or to recover from a few hours of work. Lately, though, I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself — sorry that I cannot run long distances as I once did, sorry that I cannot work longer hours without getting tired, sorry that I cannot breeze up and down stairways. Sorry, in sum, that I don’t have what I once did.

Oddly enough, I can’t remember enjoyig all those things when I was able to do them. Strength and quickness and endurance and coordination were just things I had, things, I suppose, that I thought I should have, that were somehow mine by right. I remember feeling some serious soreness after running a long distance, and I even remember bragging about it. I remember hitting a golf ball three hundred yards and relishing the praise of my golf buddies. I cannot remember ever relishing a brisk walk without pain, or the pleasant exhaustion that comes from a hard game of racquetball.

I went to the store today to buy a salad for lunch. On my way in, I saw a man in a wheelchair. He had a tube that led to his mouth. I recognized it as a device that allows a quadriplegic to maneuver his wheelchair by himself. He was younger than I, although he hair was graying. His clothing was Walmart ordinary — faded tan slacks, a weathered shirt. He was waiting for a friend who had gone in to buy groceries. I saw the two of them later, the other man carrying a bag, the man in the wheelchair talking in a strained voice. I suppose they were going home. I suppose he was living on social security disability and perhaps on some form of welfare supplement. I didn’t say hello or acknowledge him in any way. I thought about it, but I figured that he might take that as condescending, so I just kept walking from the store to my car.

I don’t know what he thought of me, if anything. He might not even have noticed me. As I walked to the car, I realized that I was walking to my car, that I wasn’t back there getting up sufficient breath to turn my wheelchair right or left, back there not walking, not ever going to walk, back there waiting for someone to change his clothes and take care of his toilet and feed him and put him in bed. He would not be playing golf or working out or running an office or even walking to the mailbox to get junk letters and throw them away. He was, as far as I could tell, just there. Just there.

We need to celebrate more. I am, at the moment, celebrating the fact that my fingers type words as I think them. I am celebrating the work I am about to do in the office this afternoon. I am celebrating the fact that I will be doing some gardening this evening, that I will fix a hamburger afterwards, that I will grab the remote and go sit in my easy chair and watch the baseball game. I think that, for the next few minutes, I will celebrate my unrestricted breathing. You should too.


A long time ago, someone gave me what I think was the best advice I have ever received regarding teaching. It was as follows. If one student doesn’t understand you, it is that student’s fault, but if several students don’t understand you, it is your fault. Looking at that bit of wisdom always makes me hark back to my first day of teaching, when, after lecturing for fifteen minutes with my back to the class, I turned around to see pretty much every student in the class staring at me with his or her mouth open. Thanks to this principle, I was able to send the class home and promise to do much, much better next time.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is a far wider application for this brilliant observation than just teaching. In particular, it has a very specific application to governance. If you are truly a citizen of the United States, then you operate on the principle that government is meant to serve the people by maintaining equality and protecting the inalienable rights of every human being. By “government”, we in the United States mean “we the people”, served by representatives. Thus the term “representative democracy.” So a government fails, and, by implication, we all fail, because, as members of this nation, we are each responsible for maintaining that equality and those rights.
We cannot, of course, eradicate inequality and the violation of rights. There will always be those who will game the system or ignore or trample on the rights of others. What we can do, however, is be vigilant to see where major and continuing violations of those rights occur and address the issues that are creating or allowing those violations. To put that in terms of the above aphorism, if one, or a very few, people, suffer a violation of their rights, it is the fault of the offenders. If, on the other hand, there is a widespread injustice, we as citizens of the United States are failing and need to do whatever we can to reduce or eliminate that injustice.
So, let us apply the principle. There is always crime in America, as in any population. There is always drug and alcohol abuse. There are always murders. If, however, drug abuse and murder escalates, then we need to look to ourselves to see if we are somehow failing as a community. Likewise, if there is some fringe group of non-Americans who do not like us, that is their problem. If, however, large segments of the world population express profound hatred of our governmental or business activities, then we need to see if we are in fact violating the rights of those populations.
Unfortunately, a great deal of this is true today. Crime in general, and murder in particular, is rising drastically across the nation. Drug abuse has skyrocketed, particularly with heroin. And in large populations in the world, America is looked upon as a country that routinely violates people’s rights and uses devious business practices purely for profit.
What do we do about it? Well, I can certainly hear the voice of those who say that we should do nothing, that whatever America does is okay, that it is in fact disloyal or even treasonous to suggest that we are to blame or that we have done anything illegal or immoral as a nation. Such talk is at best naive and at worst disingenuous. We are draining the American population of its wealth and opportunity and handing it over to superwealthy few. We are in desperate need of funds to adequately — and justifiably — run this country. Our roads are a mess, our schools are being drained of money, our health system is sucking us dry. People are despairing, and, when they despair, they do things that add to the damage.
We have, for far too many years now, reduced our tax income and then paid for the deficit by eliminating the basic benefits that our government was created to supply. The myth that reducing taxes would somehow be of benefit to us all has been exploded in a sea of violence and misery. We have, in sum, substituted private gain for public rights, and either we will end that failed policy or it will end by itself, violently.