The Culture of Compassion

Compassion for those less fortunateGrowing up, there was one horror story told by my family that would haunt me into adulthood. It has to do with the US medical system and it goes like this…

On a trip across the border, my Aunt B and her husband were struck head-on by a drunk driver. This was long before airbags and mandatory seatbelts. My Aunt B was injured, as was the drunk driver. My uncle, who was driving, was killed.

When the ambulance arrived, they loaded Aunt B in the back, right beside the drunk driver who had just killed her husband. I probably don’t need to tell you how awful that must have been, but those were different times. After a brief stay in the hospital, Aunt B was released and handed a shockingly huge bill.

Any bill would have been shocking. In Canada, we don’t pay anything when we’re treated in a hospital. But, according to the story I was told, the charges for Aunt B’s treatments were excessive.

And here’s the part that horrified young me: Among the detailed list of charges, Aunt B was expected to pay for bobby pins used to keep her hair out of her eyes in the ambulance and the tissues she was given to dry her tears as she wept for her dead husband.

What kind of monsters would make people pay for their grief?

This is the image of Americans that was engraved on my consciousness as a young adult. Sure, they looked like us and spoke like us (mostly), but they were a people without simple human compassion. People who put a price on kindness.

Of course I now know that is not true.


For years now I have watched the healthcare battle to the south of us with great interest. I have read and listened to arguments for and against universal health care, sometimes rolling my eyes at the gross inaccuracies and outright lies put forth about the Canadian health care system. (No, we do not have “Death Squads” or “Death Panels” or death anything, actually). I have had numerous conversations with Americans on both sides of this issue and, to be fair, everyone has legitimate concerns.

I am in favour of universal health care in the abstract. I grew up with this system and despite its many flaws (oh yes, there are flaws a-plenty), I firmly believe that in a wealthy first world nation we should consider quality health care a basic human right.

I also have the luxury of this belief because my country began instituting universal health care back in the 1940’s, to a population that was barely above 12 million people, in a relatively healthy economy. Easy peasy doctor squeezy!

To try and convert a country of over 300 million people to universal health care? With big pharma and insurance companies fighting you every step of the way? With the mountains of misinformation and propaganda floating around out there? With the ineffective, slow, wasteful clusterf@#&k that constitutes federal government? In a floundering economy and a country deeply in debt? Are you kidding me?

Now THAT is a horror story. Obama must be some brave or some crazy to have even started that conversation. Possibly both.

So, to those opposed to universal health care for technical or bureaucratic reasons, I get it. I really get it and I sympathize.

There are other reasons for opposition that I comprehend. Josh and I often discuss the cultural differences between The People’s Republic of Canada and ‘Merica. I find his observations fairly objective and politically unbiased. At my urging, he shared some his thoughts on the health care issue. Here’s a snippet:

The heart of American opposition to the system is rooted in two things, from my observation:

The simplest thing is a reflexive opposition to anything that smacks of socialism/communism. Like most mythological structures, there is a root in reality to this—our system has worked best by means of incrementalism, and it has been a commonly-used political tactic. However, as there are no socialists in any form of power in this country, it’s also a silly notion.

The more reasonable fear has to do with the demonstrable inefficiency we see in government at all levels that we deal with it. We watch our government be continually behind the curve, slow, rude, and unresponsive. So the prospect of handing over health care to that government whiffs of disaster. Add to that the government having the say in how treatment is allocated is what gives rise to fears of death panels and the like. We don’t trust our government very far, and for some well-earned reasons.

This also makes sense and is consistent with what I’ve observed of American culture in my lifetime.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m trying to make it clear that I understand and agree with all the logical arguments against implementing universal health care.

Now I’m going to talk about the argument I don’t agree with and the one that always brings me back to the childhood horror story of Aunt B. This argument, which I have seen and heard in numerous places, is best summarized as: “Why should I spend my hard-earned money to take care of someone who is too lazy or stupid to take care of themselves?”

This is where I see the biggest cultural divide between our two nations.

My health care is universal but it is not free. On an individual level, Canadians pay for healthcare through a combination of tax dollars and a small monthly fee. I know that my tax dollars go toward medical care for people who may not have “earned” it, as I have. I’m okay with that. I care about my fellow Canadians and I don’t want anyone, even the lazy or stupid, to go without good medical treatment. I would bet most Canadians feel the same. Culturally, I think we put a high value on compassion.

It goes deeper than that.

Take a good look around. The days when anyone could expect to do well if they just worked hard and saved are long gone. We live in a world without guarantees. There are no sure bets anymore. How many young people come out of college or university now with nothing but a useless piece of paper and a mountain of debt? How many supposedly stable companies have either collapsed or drastically downsized, leaving long-time loyal employees in the dust? How much real industry remains in North America?

How about the people who start with a handicap? This could be a physical or mental handicap—nothing substantial enough to prevent them from doing some kind of work, but enough to significantly limit their opportunities.

Then there’s generational poverty. The “welfare bums”. These are the people for whom the middle and upper classes bear the most resentment. Social leeches. They’re easy targets because we look at the small percentage of people who rise out of that muck and point our fingers and say, “They did it, why can’t you?” We refuse to consider the effects of growing up in that environment, the constant affirmation that you cannot and will not ever be more than you are—the psychology of hopelessness.

All these people, whether born poor or rendered that way through circumstance, the go-getters who fail or those who have never even tried, every one of them deserves an equal level of health care. Every one. Some of those people will never be productive members of society and some will continue to harm themselves no matter how much care they receive. I know this. I also know that I have made bad decisions in my life, I have lived below the poverty line at times, I have gone through moments of despair and hopelessness, and what got me through was not someone yelling at me to pull myself up by my boot straps…it was kindness.

Why should I spend my hard-earned money to look after people who are too lazy or stupid to look after themselves? Because someday the person who needs a little compassion could be me, or a member of my family, or one of my friends. Because compassion is its own reward. Because the way you treat the lowest members of your society is a reflection of who you are as a person and as a nation.

If you cannot look after the medical needs of your fellow citizens for logical and technical reasons, I accept that. Sometimes, it’s just not feasible to help people as much as we’d like to. But if you refuse to look after your fellow citizens because you judge them unworthy, be careful, life has a funny way of teaching lessons. One day, the fingers might be pointed at you. One day, it could be you crying in the back of the ambulance. Let’s hope someone is kind enough to give you a tissue without making you pay for it.

My country and its medical system is far from perfect but I will always choose imperfect compassion over efficient indifference.

To my American friends, I wish you luck as you wade through the health care mess. I do not envy the road ahead for you but I also have faith you’ll find a way.

Until next week, I hope this finds you healthy, happy & lovin’ life!

The Princess

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6 Responses to The Culture of Compassion

  1. Nicely written. Sadly we are just so divided in this country.

    • clubfredbaja says:

      Thanks. Yes, that is something else I notice about the US–the growing divide. As always, I have lots of thoughts but no solutions.

      • Was thinking of this post recently — On internet forums, I keep encountering hostility to the idea of peanut/tree nut free schools. I can understand annoyance and I appreciate the logical arguments against these restrictions (some research shows that it just creates a false sense of safety, for example), but I’m shocked by how many people have a freaking temper tantrum at the thought of being asked to do something that helps someone else. It’s not like we’re talking about a dietary choice. This particular allergy is life-threatening. You just see it again and again — how dare you burden others, why don’t you homeschool, this is your problem. I mean, Jesus, have a little compassion.

        • clubfredbaja says:

          That’s terrible. I honestly don’t understand why people get so combative when it comes to helping other people. Humans have thrived in part because we are smart enough to know we’re stronger when we work together.

  2. Leslie says:

    I could not agree with you more and have hopes (albeit not terribly high) that America will eventually solve our health care crisis. I loved all of this post but especially the line… “choose imperfect compassion over efficient indifference.”

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