Washington — In 1975 in Zaire, two baby boys children of a friend of mine died of measles. Against such a rock-hard wall of reality, I thought, our delicate desire to do good in the world is sorely challenged. Last week, opening my check from the U.S. government, I had the same feeling.
During my two years in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), I was surrounded by people with so wretchedly little food, money, clothing, health care or shelter that I came to an awful conclusion. We have two choices in life: We can give everything we own to the people suffering around us, and write to everyone we know to beg them to give everything, and still barely touch the suffering. Or, we can become inured to it.
I became inured. Oh, I did a little for those I knew best, but the suffering was so huge and my resources so inadequate to it that, for the most part, I toughened over.
Later, moving from Africa to Europe, I realized my conscience had been incompletely anesthetized. For a great weight was lifted from it as I discovered a choice between those two awful ones I had recognized. In this place so much more fortunate than Africa, people had chosen, through cooperative action, to achieve a substantial level of good in a practical fashion.
When I came home to this still more fortunate land, the evident homelessness and inequality were unsettling. Still, the comparison with Zaire was stark; America, it seemed, provided a balance a citizen could live with in good conscience.
With periods of exception, I have gone on feeling more hopeful than hopeless about our being, fundamentally, a people devoted to working together to do good against difficult realities.
Then came this check in the mail: "Tax Relief for America's Workers." I despise those words. I am not a worker who needs "relief." Neither chances are are you, or any of those who will write me deploring "big government" and demanding I simply return my check, as if that could take care of everything.
The people who really need some relief are getting none, or little, of it. Indeed, they're the ones we're taking it from in lost potential for programs providing health care, housing assistance, better education or child-care support.
Forty percent of the riches of this rebate are going to the wealthiest 1 percent of us. "Relief" is an absurd word for that.
President Bush, privileged from birth, takes a different approach toward doing good. He talks a lot about values. In Colorado's splendid Rocky Mountain National Park recently, he spoke of the importance of teaching children values and creating "communities of character."
We Americans are exceptionally good at talking about values, especially how superior ours are to those of the average world citizen. Some of us appear to feel that talking loudly enough about values absolves us from actually having to practice them.
News reports of Bush's Colorado remarks suggest that he is shifting the focus of his presidency from cold policy concerns such as taxes, energy supply and missile defenses to the warmer, human world of values. But these spheres are not separable. Our tax system, like our federal budget, is an expression of our values.
There is, we come to understand, no easy answer for how to behave well amid many needs. We can't do everything and therefore often feel that doing nothing is not only an attractive, but a rational, choice. Pondering this dilemma, Simon Blackburn, a Cambridge philosopher, in his book, "Being Good," offers a helpful thought: "The center of ethics must be occupied by things we can reasonably demand of each other."
What, in this country, can we reasonably expect? I'd say, some level of concern for rising income inequality. Also for the 12 million to 13 million children living in poverty. And for the 43 million Americans who have no health insurance, especially the 10 million among them who are children under 18. For kids in terrible schools, and for those at home alone afterward.
Others would have different priorities. Agreeing we can meet needs effectively only in concerted action, we then struggle to agree on which to meet always knowing government can't meet them all.
But this struggle is not what this tax cut, so rich with relief for the wealthy, shows us to be engaged in. It shows us having made the other choice: to become inured. I'm just hoping our consciences are incompletely anesthetized.
Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.