Choice is a cornerstone of American society. The songs my classmates and I learned in grade school heralded freedom of choice—room for us all—as the unifying force that made the United States stand above other countries. “Sweet land of liberty” and “This land was made for you and me” rang with conviction from our throats as we serenaded the luminaries of our constricted lives during pageants and concerts. To an extent, that freedom has always had a one-dimensional quality, with “you vs. me” more common than “you and me” outside the walls of the crepe-papered auditorium.
A new century, same concerns intensified by globalization and the sense that outsiders are pressuring our lifestyles and values on a minute-by-minute basis. (Thank you, Internet.) “My freedom” now holds significantly more value than “your freedom” because I’ve had the gumption—and the superior decision-making skills—to choose this, not that. At the very least, practicing our freedom the right way by making the right choices will allow us to avoid underwater mortgages, incarceration, food stamps, free healthcare clinics, gun-wielding killers, the minimum wage and Hell itself.
Righteousness is ours at the expense of grace. We look askance at those hapless souls whose choices don’t measure up. We regard them as less worthy of decency and civility than a chair or a necktie. As if they are nasty. As if they are crawling with cockroaches.
In my teenage years when my family lived in a small town in north Georgia, my mother worked with adults in abusive situations as a county social worker. One of Mama’s clients was a white-haired woman in her 60s who’d been forced into unemployment by severe chronic health problems. This woman, let’s call her Mabel, lived out in the country in the home of the man she had divorced several years earlier. The ex-husband had shoved a twin bed and an overstuffed easy chair next to the dining set in his dining room, and he allowed Mabel to stay there, centrally located with a right-hand view of the kitchen sink and a left-hand view of the TV in the living room. He believed this benevolence put him on the path to sainthood. He refused to lift another finger for her—or to accept help on her behalf.
To be fair, the woman rebuffed most assistance as well. Mama couldn’t get either Mabel or the ex-husband to agree to participate in homemaker services, a program that would have allowed the county to send in an aide once a week to cook and clean for her.
At first, Mabel sat up in the easy chair during Mama’s home visits. However, she became increasingly frail as the months passed. She stopped getting out of bed for anything but her basic survival needs. The woman’s living conditions suffered a corresponding downgrade. Crusted, furred dishes, used tissues, tattered newspapers, stained clothing, empty soft-drink bottles and tuna cans—it was like a trash truck had gotten queasy and spewed its vomit across the room. Despite every effort, Mama was unable to persuade Mabel or the ex-husband to accept help, and the woman recoiled from the idea of entering a nursing home.
To force Mabel to do something, Mama had to show proof to the state that she was putting herself in imminent danger. So Mama took the department director with her on the next home visit. The minute Mama walked in the room, dirt began stewing in her pores, burrowing beneath her tongue. She could taste the rot with each breath she took. There was nowhere to sit without wallowing in filth. Mentally unprepared to strip naked for the 25-minute drive back to the office to save the upholstery of the director’s Cadillac from irreparable harm, Mama stood by the woman’s bed. The director joined her, and they spoke to Mabel about her options.
The lack of movement in the room seemed to serve as a signal. A roach came out of hiding and crawled across the wall behind the woman as she lay in the bed. A slim brown German cockroach. A second roach appeared. A third. Then Mama saw a roach on the woman’s legs. By the time the conversation reached its end, seven to eight roaches were wandering around the woman’s body, some reaching the pinnacle of her shoulders.
“We have to leave,” said the director, making a bid for escape.
Mabel looked at Mama.
“Would you please kiss me before you go?” she said.
Mama was dumbfounded. While she had a cordial relationship with her client, there had been no kissing up to that point. And the woman was wearing roaches. Nevertheless, after a momentary check, she kissed Mabel’s forehead.
In the car on the way back to the office, the director exclaimed over the roaches.
“How could you touch that woman with your lips?” he said.
Mama’s rationale was simple. “I remembered that she’s part of creation too,” she said.
Mama could have made excuses: The woman made the wrong choices and brought those roaches on herself, so she didn’t merit that human touch. Instead, Mama recognized that no matter where choice had led her client, Mabel was still more like Mama than not, a life deserving of kindness.
Some people make brilliant choices. Some make idiotic ones. Some make hard choices influenced by circumstance, genetics, inclination and multiple other factors that impact our lives. It’s easy to laud the brilliant folks and denigrate the idiots. It’s also surprisingly easy to be dismissive and ugly to the people who, like us, make the choices that fit them best. But we can fulfill the promise of our childhood pride. We have the freedom to be considerate of the choices that others make. We have the liberty to be compassionate even when we disagree. When I start to think “How stupid can you be?” and “You got yourself into this. You deserve whatever happens,” I try to recall my mother and her client. I take a deep breath, and I kiss the cockroaches.