In From the Cold by George Merrill

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We’ve had some cold weather recently. And then snow. If anyone had doubts about whether mother nature calls the shots, there’s little question now.

It was cold enough so that our creek froze. In small pockets on the creek where some water remained unfrozen, hosts of geese huddled together in the water, feather to feather. They were unusually quiet. Normally they chatter all the time, like frequent flyers in a bar comparing their flights. I noticed one morning how the geese had their heads tucked under their wings. Was it to keep their heads warm or was it a gesture like the ostriches’ that hide their heads in the ground when they feel vulnerable? In either case they were remarkably still, undoubtedly preserving heat.

The leaves of the large Aucuba bush in the front of our house curled almost in half and I assume, like the geese, was trying to preserve as much warmth as it could. Only the leafless trees, conifers, and the holly seemed unperturbed with the arctic air.

Of my regular sweaters – and I wear sweaters all the time in winter – not faux sweaters made of synthetics or even cotton, but ones made of real wool from real sheep; none kept me warm enough. I hauled out an old woolen sweater I’d bought years ago in Baltimore. The sweater was made in Ecuador. It weighs about as much as a flak jacket. The sheep in Ecuador must stay warm all the time. I’m good and toasty in that sweater.

Arctic air can be lethal for those who don’t enjoy the basic services and conveniences that most Americans enjoy. A service I enjoy routinely, can be a matter of life and death for those who try to get by without it?

I sleep at night in a house with a temperature of about 60 degrees. I have plenty of blankets. I get up in the morning and turn the heat up to 68 degrees. I use the bathroom, flush its wastes, turn the tap water on to brush my teeth. In the kitchen, I draw more water to make coffee; I turn on my electric stove to make breakfast without being in any way encumbered or put out by the freezing temperatures outside. I take what I need from a well-stocked refrigerator. After breakfast, I put on the clothes for the day. The day I wrote this essay I saw two doctors- one to check my eyes and the other an ear infection. One appointment had been in the works for weeks, the other took me only a phone call and I got in the same day. For any obligations beyond the home, I own a dependable car.

In short, I am assured of a warm place, food, safety, power and clean water. I have accessible medical care, transportation and a home to which I can return in all seasons and be comfortable. I have been resident in the community long enough to know people and I have friends that I can depend on.

In short, by virtue of my circumstances I am one of the millions of Americans who in fact live comparatively privileged lives when measured against the world’s population. I have done nothing to earn any of these luxuries – they are not rewards of any kind – they are a part of the good fortune of being a middle-class American citizen that offers many opportunities.

I find freezing weather intimidating. I realize when it gets so bitterly cold that my well-being is derived from all kinds of services and from the people I am fortunate enough to have access to. Americans talk a lot about their “rights.” I don’t consider any of these things as a right; I see them as blessings, mutual blessings meant to be shared with others by those of us whose circumstances have assured us of many blessings.

The luxury of having privilege can affect people two ways. There are those whose good fortunes inure them to the sufferings of the disenfranchised. They feel indifference if not contempt. In others, the blessings they themselves enjoy inspire a sense of gratitude and with that, a desire to share their blessings with others.

Talbot Interfaith Shelter is one icon of blessing in our community that witnesses to how, among the privileged, there are enough who care and are committed to provide shelter for those who have none. To use a Christmas metaphor, TIS (Talbot Interfaith Shelter) offers room at the inn which is a blessing at any time but especially when temperatures plummet.

To treat the blessings of one’s life as entitlements is a significant character flaw in the American psyche. “I got my rights” is a common refrain. It’s the product of “I worked for everything I have.” No one ever does it all on his own. There were all kinds of helpers along the way. A life of economic security and social capital can often bring out the worst. The ego converts its privileges and good fortune into entitlements. There’s no thought given to blessings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, defending the recent tax bill’s lessening of the estate tax on the 2% of wealthiest Americans said; the “rich people invest their money” as opposed to those who are “just spending every darn penny they have whether on booze, or women, or movies.” Sen. Orin Hatch, in a similar vein was quoted as saying it made sense to cut corporate taxes and reduce Obamacare and other safety-net spending, since the government spends trillions “to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger.”

The implications are painfully clear: the rich are deserving for their virtue; the poor are moral failures and therefore undeserving.

In my youth, a parent’s eagerness to have resistant children eat their spinach was often to tell them about all the starving people in India. The strategy wasn’t very skillful. Guilt rarely induces generosity but it sure will make you hate spinach.

Right now, the socio- political climate is edging us along a “me first” path. Americans are better than that.

With all the good fortune Americans routinely enjoy we don’t have to leave anyone out in the cold.

And that’s a blessing in itself.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Thank you, George, for your compassion and objective look at our privileges. And thank you for mentioning the good works of TIS. Remarkable blessings there, for guests, volunteers, staff, and for our community. We couldn’t do the good we do without coming together, like your image of the geese huddling against the bitter cold. I give thanks to God for you and for our supportive community.

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