I value these encounters, especially as our society’s supply of civility declines as our overall level of prosperity crumbles. We live in mean times.
One recent weekend, I encountered Xunzi, a Chinese writer born approximately 312 B.C. and the next most influential Confucian philosopher after Confucius and Mencius. The translator—Burton Watson—enabled me to learn from a philosopher who died almost twenty-three hundred years ago. A gift of civilization.
Like other Confucian philosophers, Xunzi wrote about people and their relationships with each other and their host society.
Because of a traitorous appendix, I spent hours on my back in the emergency room and a patient room at Passavant Area Hospital. Freed from the distractions of everyday life, I had time to think and talk to others, and I’m reminded how little the choices we face change over time.
Long ago, Xunzi wrote, “In the case of those who belong to the five incapacitated groups, the government should gather them together, look after them, and give them whatever work they are able to do. Employ them, provide them with food and clothing, and take care to see that none are left out.”
If I had been standing, I might have fallen down: reading a defense of the social safety net in ancient Chinese philosophy while being treated in an emergency room on a busy Friday night is not an everyday experience.
Each citizen faces certain simple choices about how to utilize our time, money, and attention. Will we create or destroy? Will we build on our strengths or succumb to our weaknesses? Will we help all of our people or only a favored few? Governments face the same choices.
Smart societies recognize their assets, and the trained people who work at Passavant Hospital—support staff and volunteers, medical technicians, registered nurses, certified nursing assistants, paramedics, emergency-room doctors, and surgeons—are a community asset.
I thank these people for a host of interesting conversations, spread across one long night and day, and—of course—for my continued good health.
Look, I’m aware that a serious illness or intense pain can focus the mind, but I’m trying to make a point about perspective and optimism here: How often do the residents of our cities step back and consider our proximity to a hospital as an asset?
When I needed a hospital, I reached one within eight minutes, and many people have shared similar stories with me about their medical emergencies. How many other citizens in downstate Illinois are so fortunate?
But our tendency, especially in our public deliberations, is to focus on the negative: our deficits, our weaknesses, our inconveniences.
Employees enrolled in employer-managed health-care plans and citizens enrolled in government-managed Medicare undoubtedly possess a lengthy list of grievances and desires, but towering over all such petty concerns should be an awareness of their great good fortune.
Couple that good fortune with a generous willingness to see all American citizens in positions of equal access, and we might possess a society that would impress Xunzi with its civic virtue. Absent that awareness and generosity, something is rotten in this country, and it’s not just my appendix.
Now that I am out of the hospital, the reflexive viciousness and nastiness of so much of our public discourse will compete for my attention.
But for as long as possible, I’m going to dwell on the sense of humor and calm competency so pervasive at our hospital.
That’s civilization I can believe in.
This column originally appeared in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on 6 April 201