Friday, May 6, 2011

Fixing What's Really Broken

Do you pick up hitchhikers?

Do you stop to assist a driver broken-down by the side of the road?

Years ago, when my family lived near Syracuse, NY, a rash of assaults took place on well-meaning motorists who offered to pick-up hitchhikers on local freeways. I remember hearing officials telling people to simply ignore all hitchhikers. Don't try to be kind. You don't know who you can trust.

More recently, I've heard many a preacher or small group leader - all men, of course - admonish us guys to stop and help people whose cars have broken-down. Even this morning, as I read an article about faith and risk, the author chided his readers who didn't help stranded motorists out of ambivalence or fear.

For some guys, it's easy to generalize and assume the rest of our gender have the same mechanical acumen as they do, or as society expects us to have. But I've gotta tell ya: if you're stranded alongside the highway with a broken-down car, you don't want me stopping to help you fix it!

I changed my car's oil once, and that was back when I was in college, and my younger brother couldn't believe I was such a wuss as to pay a garage to do it for me. So I did it - to prove that I could. But there are some things it's worth paying somebody else to do, and changing the oil is one of those things for me. Especially now, since so many dealerships use oil changes as a loss-leader for other work that needs to be done to your car.

Speaking of which, a dealership once quoted me something like $75 to change an air filter, so I balked and got online to see if I could do it myself. Sure enough, I found a website that identified where the filter housing was located, and the part number I'd need. I went and paid about $20 for the top-of-the-line filter, got a wrench, and popped the hood. About an hour later, after both my father and I had ripped the skin off of our knuckles, and my next-door neighbor had dropped a couple of his fancy tools into my engine trying to help, we finally wrestled the stupid filter into its housing. I then spend the rest of the evening trying get my neighbor's tools out of my car.  I sure didn't feel like I'd saved $50.

Suffice it to say that if you break down and have a cell phone, you're far better off waiting for professional help than wanting me to happen by. I might be able to help you change a flat tire, but those fix-a-flat cans available these days are more handy than me straining to loosen lug nuts. And I don't jump batteries with my own car's battery anymore; the last time I did, the battery I was jumping was so corroded it fizzed and sparked so much I was afraid to disconnect the jumper cables.

Have I mentioned that I'm not that technical?

When Helping Doesn't Help

Now, if you're a master mechanic, then maybe God has given you skills that He expects you to use as a roadside Mr. Fix-It. But if I stopped to just chat with somebody on the roadside and help keep their spirits up - which is about the only expertise I could offer (and even then, some readers of my blog would question my ability to cheer ANYBODY up) - then having me stand with you by the side of the road would probably discourage somebody who could offer real help from stopping. They'd assume you already had help, and just keep on driving.

But I suspect the basic issue here isn't that helping stranded drivers is something every male is obligated to do because we're supposedly all masters at fixing stuff. All people of faith have been blessed by God with talents and skills, but these abilities aren't exclusively for our personal benefit, are they? They're to be put to use for His Kingdom. And not just in church on Sundays.

At this point, I could take the high road and tell you that I won't list the many ways I help my fellow humanity because then it would sound like I'm bragging. Or I could take the path of least resistance and simply admit that no, this is one of the areas on which I need to work. Yes, I used to help keep my neighbor widow's yard free from limbs and debris (while another neighbor paid for a lawn service to mow it). I've donated what's amounted to a complete wardrobe to local charities, and have served on a neighborhood bylaws committee.

But like many of us, I could do more.

Why don't I?  Why don't you?

Part of being a conservative has become holding people in our society to levels of accountability that make us feel as though we don't owe anybody anything. The reason people's cars are constantly breaking down by the side of the road is because they don't maintain them properly. And they don't maintain them properly because they haven't applied themselves to obtain good-paying jobs. The reason other people need my clothes is because they've made bad choices in their lives. Meanwhile, I drive a reliable car and pay retail for my clothes because I work hard and earn a stable income (well, I used to, anyway).

I suspect this is the rationale behind how many Republicans view entitlement programs. If people would study harder and work harder, and take seriously their personal responsibility of providing for themselves and their families, then they'd be able to purchase all of the things in life that help them be self-sufficient and contributing members of society.

But things break, don't they? Automobile engines malfunction. Workers lose jobs and get squeezed out of the employment market by the economy. And yes, we make mistakes, we put things off just a little too long, or we underestimate the facts of life. Some of these are blatant errors on our part, and some of these are caused by events beyond our control.

Even though I drive by broken-down cars on the side of the road, should I drive by broken-down lives on the highway of life? Just because I figure it may be their own fault for not keeping their stuff in good repair? Or because I can't fix it myself anyway?

I wonder what part of wisdom is knowing the difference between when to stop and help, or when to keep on going?

Who Will Spend the Resources?

Sure, stopping to help means I inconvenience myself.  I have to spend some of my finite resources on someone else instead of me, myself, and I.  I reason that I've worked hard for what I've learned, earned, and saved, so why can't all these other people who want my resources? I'm entitled to keep and spend my time, money, and skills in the way that I want.

Which is the even bigger issue here than fixing broken-down cars, isn't it?  How much of what we've learned, earned, and saved is truly ours?  How much of it has been given to us?  Not by our parents, our employer, our alma mater... but God?

How can I twist my not stopping to help a fellow motorist into a critique on conservative economics?  By realizing that I'm not here for myself, and you're not here for yourself.  Granted, the scourges of generational poverty, laziness, and blaming others for our problems are factors which need to be dealt with appropriately.  And at some point, people of faith have to draw the line between being Godly servants, economic doormats, and expecting maturity from others.  After all, just as Christ calls us to minister to the poor and needy, writers of the book of Proverbs repeatedly warn sluggards that if they don't work, they don't eat.

I've already admitted I'm not qualified to lord over you the moral of this lesson.  So don't just write off my imperfections as disqualifying everything I've said; ask the Lord if there's ways you can contribute to His kingdom through the things He's given you. And if I'm entirely wrong, God will tell you that, too.

Not that I'm suddenly compelled to stop and try to help the next broken-down motorist I see.  Or that you and I should pummel Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative John Boehner with demands that they stop trying to dismantle the government's entitlement programs.

But if you and I spent more of our own resources where we see the needs, would our government have to waste so much money trying to do what we're not?

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