We're all in this together

For most of my life I’ve heard terms like “self-made man” and “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” In a small western town there was a lot of pride in hard work and self-sufficiency. The truth, however, is that I have never been self-sufficient. I have always depended on others around me for survival and support. I was proud to think of myself as independent from my parents when I went away to college at the age of 17. The reality is that I was nowhere near financially independent. In addition to regular support, I had the “fall back” of knowing that I had a job waiting in my father’s business if I ever needed it. And that is where I worked for the first two summers of my college experience, and for the summer after I graduated from college. All the way through my college and graduate school years my car was on the company’s fleet policy, which meant that I wasn’t paying for the insurance on the vehicle. My college and graduate school years were subsidized by generous donors who supported those educational institutions.

When we began our careers, we moved into a parsonage owned by one of the congregations we served. It isn’t a small luxury for a young couple, fresh out of school, to move into a three bedroom two bathroom home with an attached garage. We lived in that house for seven years. When we moved to Idaho we began purchasing our home, but we always had a mortgage on that house. It is an interesting thing how easily we became comfortable with a mortgage. We didn’t think of the house as belonging to the bank or not being fully ours. The timing was not the best and interest rates were high, so we felt like we were paying all of our expenses. We’ve had a mortgage ever since, but we continue to think of our home as our own, even though we haven’t yet paid for all of it.

Beyond all of that, there are some tax advantages that are afforded to clergy. Like members of the US military, we do not pay taxes on the portion of our income that goes to our housing. That is a really big advantage to us and a direct support that is afforded to us by the generosity of others.

We have the luxuries that we do in our lives because we have worked hard, but also because we have received support from others. There are plenty of others who have put in the same kind of hours we have and have not reaped the same benefits.

Perhaps my theme song should be that old Beatles hit, “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

I’ve had a lot of help and support from others as I have gone through this life’s journey. I have been a product of community. My family, my schools, my church - I have been surrounded by supportive community all of my life.

One of the wonderful parts of this process is that since we graduated from seminary, we have always moved to a church. Each move, we have known what our job would be and which congregations we would be serving. That meant that when we arrived in our new town there was an already-formed community of people who held pot-luck meals, provided volunteers to help unload the truck, gave us advice on shopping and getting set up in our new place.

Even now, contemplating retirement, we have already been scouting churches in the place where we are planning to move. Before we make the final commitments, we’ll know where we will be attending church even though the coronavirus pandemic is making “attending” a funny word when it comes to churches. We don’t know the exact pattern of how church membership will evolve through all of this, but we do know that there will be a supportive community that will be a part of our lives in the next phase. Besides, we are moving to be nearer to family, so we know we have love and support and an extended network of people in this new phase of our lives.

Some of the phrases and aphorisms that I have heard over the years aren’t very accurate in reality. We have enjoyed good fortune, but we haven’t exactly “earned everything we have.” We have been the recipients of incredible generosity. I have never truly been “financially independent.” Before I was independent from the generosity of my parents, my finances were intertwined with those of my wife. We have always both worked and provided income for our family. I’ve never don it all by myself. Except for a few semesters in college, I’ve never even had my own bedroom. I’ve always lived with others and I prefer it that way.

When I encounter those who are less fortunate than I, I am learning to understand that their circumstances are not the result of a moral failing or a failure to work hard. They have encountered circumstances that are different from my own. The massive unemployment and shift in the economy that is a result of this pandemic is re-shaping a lot of people’s lives. Those who thought they were in stable positions find themselves unable to make their mortgage payment and buy groceries. The hard times are primarily not the result of their choices, but rather of forces outside of themselves. Sure, I know people who make bad choices. I’ve met folks who could use their talents in different ways. Sometimes people suffer because they have done the wrong thing. But as Rabbi Kushner said in his popular book, there are times “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.’ This pandemic is one of those times.

One of my signature phrases was borrowed from the Canadian actor Steve Smith and his Red Green Show: “We’re all in this together.” Indeed we really are. And when we learn to not only help others, but gracefully accept their generosity we are all better for it.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!