Wealth and Privilege

I have been in a major funk, feeling sorry for myself. I don’t imagine it’s pretty, but my friends have been supportive nonetheless. One particularly close friend was having problems of his own, having recently been ripped off by a huge, faceless corporation that refuses to even acknowledge his existence beyond threatening to make his life miserable if he doesn’t pay their spurious charges. The amount of money is more than trivial, but less than catastrophic. For him, though, the experience has been devastating, as he has been made to feel that he has no control over his financial affairs (I think any victim of identity theft or an IRS mistake can probably relate).

He knows a bit (a very little bit, actually) of recent events that I am brooding about. Yesterday morning we were visiting and he said something about his problems seeming trivial next to mine. That led us to a discussion of Tsunami victims and a general discussion about the fact that we both lead lives of extraordinary wealth and privilege compared to much of humankind. Our problems were actually comparable in their triviality next to the issues of comfort and survival faced by most of our peers on Earth. “The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Fast forward through my day. Most of my professional life is spent treating homeless people with mental illness. I like to think it’s a noble calling, but the reality is that I get paid an obscene amount of money to do it. (Perhaps not by doctor standards but, trust me, it’s obscene.) So much money, that I get to be home as a full time care provider to Matthew four days a week. That’s noble too, right? But there are thousands of abused, starving, orphaned children in the world. There are also countless thousands of people right here in Sacramento with mental illness who cannot find a doctor to treat them. All the while, I’m lavishing my full attention for four days a week on my own child.

Do we imagine Mother Teresa wandering the streets of Calcutta thinking “If I really cared about the poor, I would be out in the villages instead of here in the city with a roof over my head?” (And I have the nerve to complain when my office gets over 85 degrees.)

As the day progressed, a strange thing happened. I got calls from a friend, a friend of a friend, and a friend of a friend of a friend, all with basically the same story: they had nasty upper respiratory infections that they thought needed medical attention. None had health insurance, two were students with very limited resources. One had already spent six hours in the county indigent medical clinic but, in the end, had not received any services. I had a few holes in my evening schedule, so I invited each of them to come in for a complimentary exam. My private office is set up as a psychotherapy office, and I can’t do any serious primary care medicine there, but you don’t really have to have a diagnostic laboratory and MRI scanner to diagnose and treat most upper respiratory illnesses. I warned the callers that they still might end up having to go to a real clinic if their problems turned out to be complicated, but all were willing to at least get screened. Though two of them actually turned out to have serious problems, they were all problems for which I was able to institute first-line therapy. The patients saved a little money, but a lot of time, frustration, and anxiety — and potential serious complications had they been unable to get timely treatment.

I feel really good about being able to help. My thoughts did return, though, to the subject of the morning. After all, every one of the patients I treated probably had more money in their pocket that a third-world child laborer makes in a year of 12 (plus) hour days and six (plus) day weeks. So should I really feel good about helping out the already over-privileged?

The answer is “yes.” In spite of our relative positions of wealth or poverty, we are all capable of great suffering. Money and privilege can amelorate some suffering, but no amount of money can insulate us from the death of family and friends, loneliness, fear, isolation, and many other of the ills to which flesh is heir. It is good, particularly when mired in self-pity, to remember those less fortunate than ourselves. The perspective is valuable. At the same time, “even unto the least of these” is not the same as “only unto the least of these.”

Guess I’ll move to Beverly Hills next week and become Charity Medical Provider to the Stars.

RonRisley – 02 Mar 2005