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The best of Hopeworks: On invisible gorillas

Posted Jul 19 2012 6:01am

from 2011

There is a very famous experiment in social psychology.  An observer is shown a video of two teams passing a ball back and forth.  One team is dressed in black, the other in red.  The observer is asked to count how many passes the black team makes.  Somewhere towards the middle of the video a confederate dressed as a gorilla enters the scene.  He beats on his chest.  After a couple of minutes he leaves the scene.  Almost every observer who watched the video counted the correct number of passes.  50% of the observers did not see the gorilla.  For all intents and purposes the gorilla was invisible.

The point was clear.  We see what we are looking for, but have a curious blindness to things we think shouldnt be there.  Even when it is big, attention getting and seemingly obvious we can still miss it.  Even gorilla’s can be invisible.

I have listened with interest to the health care debate and the ensuing budget discussions that it seems will inevitably affect the final reality for everyone.   I hear one side of the debate pound the same few basic points:

  • Sick poor people cost too much.
  • We shouldnt have to pay for them.
  • The government is trying to make us.
  • The government is attacking our freedom by doing this.
  • A vote against government health care is a vote for freedom.

You see the gorilla is invisible.  Millions of people whose largest crime is to be poor and sick have been reduced to the status of liberal propaganda.  We have adopted the idea that they dont try hard enough or that they lie or that they are lazy to excuse the fact that for many people illness has become a felony punishable by death or imprisonment in a system which leaves them with little or no hope,  substandard care and the inevitable fate that an illness treatable and of little consequence to their fellow citizens with good insurance or firm financial footing will likely in the end destroy the quality of their lives.

One cynical friend told me it was easy to tell who had poor health insurance or no health insurance.  The  were he told me, “…the ones with bad dental problems bumping into a lot of things because they had inadequate vison care.”  I know that when I talk to mental health consumers one of their biggest struggles and stresses are the lack of dental care and vision care.  Too much, too often they are one of the things that define what it means to be disabled, sick, and/or poor in this country.  This is the space too many people call home.  I know.  I live there too.

  • Do they cost too much?  Everybody costs too much.  We live with a system rife with waste that seems structured around a central idea.  Everyone who makes money should continue to make money, more if at all possible (and it always possible),  and anything that interferes with that is wrong, evil, or at best an example of liberal naivete.  The idea of decreasing the amount of help people get or the amount of help they get without addressing the tremendous inefficiencies that literally flush resources down the toilet  seems to me to be an obscenity.
  • People cost  because even when you ignore them or limit their help to virtually nothing they still dont die fast enough.  Bills that the federal government or the state government cant or refuses to attempt to pay simple fall down one level.  In the end it falls to local communities who cant pay their way now.  It is called financial responsibility but it is little more than giving the check at dinner to someone else while you hurry out the door least someone notice you are leaving.  It is a myth of all myths.  You can refuse to pay for the costs of health care.  You cannot refuse to pay for the consequences of poor health and sickness.
  • We shouldnt have to pay for them.  Medicaire(the old), medicaid (the poor), and Veterans administration (the militiary) are three of the largest parts of the medical system.  Are they part of “them” also?  I have never heard of anyone with medicaire refusing it as part of an ethical stance.  We already pay for “them.”
  • What happens when you become part of “them?”  4 years ago I had health insurance.  I had it all my adult life.  The loss of a job and 3 years of unemployment left me acutely aware I was now part of “them.”  I have met far too many people with similiar journeys.  I have no health insurance and no realistic chance of getting it.  I havent fallen between the cracks.  I live there.
  • I prefer to live in a society which sees the health care as an ethical commitment and not an accounting dilemna.  My wife is disabled.  A few years ago a good day for her was 10-15 grand mal seizures.  She has since had brain surgery to control seizures that were in a very real way destroying the quality of her life and even threatening her very life.  She has come a long way.  She is a miracle of Tenn Care.  But it is a miracle that must be redone  each and every day.  Without that miracle she will either die or be consigned to a life constricted and limited which is little more than a kind of death itself.  I dread the day and hope it never comes when her life becomes part of a larger balance statement that says she costs too much and can no longer be afforded.  I will hate to explain that society to my kids.
  • Freedom.  The tea party folks who laud themselves as having cornered the market on the defense of freedom most assuredly do not speak for my freedom.  You see I already have freedom from insurance.  The idea that people must be protected from insurance is one of the most inane ideas I have ever heard.  Only when you have truly fallen through the looking glass does it seem true.

For most of the people I know their daily struggle is more than the struggle against illness.  It is the struggle for care that gives them a chance to live their life on a level playing field.  It is a struggle against the assumption that somehow they “brought it on themselves.”  It is a struggle against a system that is broken and confusing with so many contradictory rules and expectations that destroy hope and effort.  It is a struggle against a society that punishes them more for being significantly ill without insurance than it does for robbing a bank.  It is a struggle in a political system in which many do not seem them, regard them, or attribute to them a voice worth hearing.  It is a struggle in a society which defines them as the problem because they inconveniently get sick and lack the ability to make themselves well.

Gorillas can be invisible.  I look at my wife.  I look at me.  I look at so many good and decent people I know and I know.  Gorillas can be invisible.

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