© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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As most of you hopefully know, I try my best to avoid politics in my messages. As Jesus pointedly told his followers, we are to render unto Caesar what is his and unto the Divine what is hers. In other words, the civic realm must be kept separate from the spiritual. And vice versa. This is an ideal enshrined in our constitution and one that I take very seriously.
I say all of that as a preface to my words today which might, to some, seem political. They are not so intended. I hope to pose spiritual questions.
Last October 11th, on the conservative website RedState.com, a man posted the following statement: “I am making $5 an hour less in my current job than in my previous one. My wife and I live in a house that we are upside down on. We have 2 used cars and couldn’t afford a new one if we wanted to. I don’t blame anyone who is successful for my situation. I don’t want the government to fix things for me. Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. That’s what I am doing.”
On the exact same day, a woman posted the following on the website “We Are the 99 percent.com”: “My husband lost his job 2 years ago and can’t find full-time work—he takes temp jobs at low pay to help make ends meet. He still owes money on student loans. I work 40 plus hours a week for barely over minimum wage. We need a government that helps those who are trying to help themselves.”
What fascinates me are the similar situations of these two people but their very different attitudes about assistance to folks like themselves. The man speaks to an American ideal of self-help, hard-work, initiative and persistence. He echoes what Theodore Geisel wrote in his book Oh! The Places You Will Go. The woman, on the other hand, speaks to a belief that governments are instituted among people to assist in the well-being and protection of society. Such is the ethos that we are stronger together than we are alone.
Most characters in Dr.Seuss books have no identifiable ethnicity. They are animals or funny, unknown creatures of his own imagination. This makes them universal in appeal because they embody aspects in us all. In Oh! The Places You Will Go, however, the main character is a young, Caucasian boy. Some critics contend this diminishes the impact of his book – how can it speak to females or those of different races?
In truth, Dr. Seuss or Theodore Geisel expressed in Oh! The Places You Will Go an autobiographical understanding of his own life – one marked by both extreme highs and great lows. Success as an author came to him in his sixties. Such success came after long years of hard work and persistence – a theme of this book.
Just as meaningful for Geisel in terms of understanding his success, was coming to terms with his failures. He divorced his first wife of over thirty years and married his lover – the woman who became his second wife and trustee of his legacy. He was also not universally loved or admired. He was widely attacked for influencing young minds in ways that many did not approve. Seuss’ determination despite such failures and criticisms is also a theme of Oh! The Places You Will Go.
Writing this book only two years before his death, Geisel describes his theory on success in life – mostly from his own life experiences. Success comes to those who work, to those who create their own opportunity, to those who refuse to sit and wait for good luck. We are masters of our own fate, he implies. We choose the paths to follow and, if we do so with discernment and a willingness to be adventurous, we will succeed.
Despite fear, setbacks and enemies, those who continue the hike up their mountain will reach its summit. Success is virtually guaranteed to anyone who is diligent, hard working and who never gives up.
As ironic as it might seem for a man who worked in the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal administration and who wrote for several progressive magazines, Geisel’s advice in Oh! The Places You Will Go is remarkably traditional. Our lives are guided by decisions we alone make, by common sense, by persistence and by sheer hard work. To those who practice such ideals, success is assured. And, the implied corollary to this notion is that those who do not succeed are people who give up in the face of hardship, who are lazy, make poor decisions, are timid or sit and wait for good fortune.
Much like the man whom I quoted at the beginning of this message, Geisel expresses an American ethic: success comes to the rugged individualist who achieves it by determination, brains, and hard work. Geisel’s book is the Horatio Alger story set to rhyme – no matter who you are or where you were born, you can succeed no matter what. To accept help, to ask for the compassion of others, or of society in general, is to admit failure. In America, one is solely responsible for their success or failure. According to Oh! The Places You Will Go, we either pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or we don’t.
Is this gospel according to Dr. Seuss – this gospel of American life – reality? As inspiring as his words might be for youth embarking on the journey of life, is success guaranteed to anyone who just works hard? Can any person, after suffering a setback, reverse their ill fortune by sheer determination? If our answer to such questions is “yes”, what should our response be to those who are in need – those whom it appears have failed at the game of life? Is Geisel’s formula for reaching mountain top of achievement – something that applies to everyone? What do we say to individuals like those whom I quoted at the beginning who have worked hard and tried to make good decisions but who are still far below the mountain-top?
The Bible tells us in the book of Proverbs that, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” In the New Testament, Paul writes that those who do not work should not eat. For them to expect a hand-out is the same as theft.
In his parable of talents, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who gives to each of his servants several talents of gold – a talent being a unit of money. This rich man then goes away and does not return for several months. When he returns, he asks his servants what they did with money he gave them. One man says he bought land and used it to grow abundant crops. Another invested in flocks of sheep which also prospered. But the final servant tells the rich man that he simply buried the gold entrusted to him – the better to save it. He is immediately and soundly rebuked for his laziness and lack of initiative. The implied moral of the parable is that we are to work and invest and not, as Dr. Seuss says, simply sit in the waiting room of life.
But just as the Bible seems to echo the words of Dr. Seuss in praise of industrious people, it also teaches us to have compassion and understanding for those who live on the margins of life – those who seemingly have not succeeded. God tells the Jewish people in the Old Testament that, “There will always be some people who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them.”
Jesus offers a guiding principle for us: “Come into my kingdom…I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome in your home, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was imprisoned and you visited me. I tell you, if you did this for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.”
There are over 300 Bible verses that encourage care for the poor. Alms giving to the poor is one of the five pillars of Islam – a pivotal requirement for Muslims. In Hinduism and Buddhism, concern for the poor is part of becoming enlightened . Does one focus on the self or on others? Clearly, this is a spiritual matter of grave importance to people of all faiths. If one is thankful, if one is empathetic, if one feels a part of the whole human family, one cannot help but love, serve and give to the so-called unsuccessful in life.
As much as I admire Theodore Geisel for his creative and insightful books, where are charitable ideals in Oh! The Places You Will Go? Where does success in life also require serving the least of god’s children? Do we implicitly assume such people are lazy, unwise, and lack determination? Is that what Jesus would assume?
Indeed not. Jesus tells a story about a poor beggar named Lazarus and a rich man. Lazarus is in heaven and resting comfortably while the rich man suffers in a type of hell. The rich man asks to be shown mercy and released from hell but he is told that in life he ignored the suffering of Lazarus who was poor and sick. Even dogs showed compassion to Lazarus while the rich man did not. Both men, according to Jesus, are reaping the consequences of their lives.
The implied message of Jesus’ parable is NOT that wealth or success is bad. Greed and indifference to others are wrong. The Bible is not inconsistent in its values. Hard work IS a virtue. Those who choose not to work when they can, should NOT expect hand-outs. But the higher ethic, the one that beckons us to follow our better angels, is far more nuanced.
Once again, I repeat myself in stating that truth lies somewhere between two extremes – between a liberality of giving to anyone who is poor and the Horatio Alger idea that anyone can succeed if they work hard. Which is better and more loving for someone in need – a handout or a hand up?
BUT, should we also echo the platitude in Seuss’ book that diligence, hard work and brains automatically insures success? Do we implicitly assume those who are successful were hard working and those who are not were lazy?
Elizabeth Warren, a current Massachusetts Senate candidate, said a few months ago, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your products to market on roads everybody paid for. You hired workers everybody paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that everybody paid for.”
That is not just a political statement. It is also a spiritual one if we think about it. Each of us who have achieved some success owe debts of gratitude to the many sources that helped us. To echo a contemporary proverb, it takes a village to succeed in life. Dr. Seuss’ story contains many insights that can lead to success in life – hard work, initiative, determination. But we are NOT islands unto ourselves. Other forces, factors and people also shape our lives and cause us to either succeed or not.
I am a white male raised most of my early life in a well off Cincinnati suburb. I attended safe and well funded schools. My parents were successful and attentive to the importance of my education. I went off to, and graduated from, a top rated private college. I embarked on my own at twenty-two with many, many advantages.
Just down the hill from where I was raised, in a community called Madisonville, lives a woman my age named Mary who was raised by a single mother. As an African-American, she came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s when opportunities for black women were very few. Mary graduated from high school and has since worked as an aide at day care centers. She had one daughter whose father abandoned them. That daughter fell in with the wrong crowd and is now a drug addict. The daughter had a son whom Mary now raises by herself. She deeply loves her grandson. She reads to him, raises him with a stern hand, and works a full-time job to support him. And yet, Mary has travelled no farther than Indiana during her entire life. Pleasures in her life are few. Having enough money – on a minimum wage salary – to pay her rent and buy groceries is extremely difficult.
I have worked to earn my way as an adult. I studied, I applied myself, I continue to try and earn what I eat. Even more important, though, I have also been wonderfully blessed and very, very lucky in life. But Mary, who grew up just a few miles from me and is my same age, has worked far harder. She has persevered despite many barriers in her life – those she did not cause. I cannot begin to imagine the struggles she has faced almost from her birth. Yet, by purely outward appearances, I have succeeded and she has not. Were Mary to read Oh! The Places You Will Go, she might find it funny – a book of fiction instead of insight. Where is her 98 and ¾ percent guarantee of success in life because of her hard work and perseverance? With all due respect to Dr. Seuss, this well-loved book is a joke to people like Mary.
An anonymous commentator once said that for us to expect life to be fair because we are a good person – is like expecting a bull not to charge at someone because he or she is a vegetarian! But, while LIFE is indeed NOT fair, humanity must fill that gap and help create greater fairness for one another. Our better angels call each of us who have been blessed in life to assist the Mary’s of our nation and world.
A spiritual addendum to Dr. Seuss’ book Oh! The Places You Will Go should insist that to those whom much is given, much is expected. For those of us who have been richly blessed, our hearts ought to respond with an outpouring of grace to those in need. This is the spiritual outworking of gratitude. It is the spirituality of loving as we have been loved, of giving as we have been given to, of seeking justice for all as we have enjoyed the same.
As much as the American dream and Dr. Seuss’ words may have come true for me and for many of you, they have been a nightmare for many others. Let us not smugly satisfy ourselves that we were not the recipients of help from others – including our nation and our government. That is a lie no matter who we are. Let us not indulge in stereotype and assume all those who struggle also lack ambition or don’t work. There are indeed sluggards in life. Such people are not the norm. The majority of struggling people in our world work hard. They persist in spite of great obstacles and yet suffer due to bad luck, abuse, disability or injustice.
If this nation is a faith based nation as many assert, then our national spirituality must show evidence of that faith. As the Biblical book of James says, faith without works – without effort to assist the poor – is no faith at all. It is dead. Let it be said of us – as a church, city and as a nation, that our faith is alive! Our faith in the worth of all humanity is one that offers compassion and fairness to all people.
I wish each of you much peace and much joy.