Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some are More Equal

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 the other doctors in private practice were left out? Although the long-term outcome of this issue resulted in the doctors who relied on subsidies all leaving town, the issue is much larger than one town hall meeting. It's about a philosophy of living.

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.
  • Adults must teach their children 
  • Adults must protect children.
  • The rich must help the poor.
  • "And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required." - Luke 12:48
All of us have been given something of value, that others have in less abundant supply. But I was always told that I was very fortunate, that God had given me "much." Therefore, our religion and basic morality demanded that I serve others and give back as much as I could. And this was why that nun hit my fingers with a ruler--- I was given a gift from God, and darn 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 public subsidy, but the other doctors in town did not. Their reasons were specious at best, but it made me think of two things. Shouldn't the strong help the weak? And shouldn't all of the doctors be treated equally? Well to make this point, 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 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, and deserved special treatment.

What did I do? I spoke up and said in so many words that we should avoid imitating 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 we proved through our actions that our community was made up of equals, and that in some way, all of us had strengths we could share with others. All of us had weaknesses that could benefit from the help of others. We rejected the Animal Farm pig philosophy.

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?