Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Beggars in Spain

In first-world America, most people[citation needed] have contemplated at least once what their ideal superpower would be, if superpowers existed. I myself always answered this question with: "[selective] mind-reading." As a single data-point, my coworkers and I frequently (and exhaustedly) have exclaimed "I can't read minds!" Consider how much easier / productive (or even manipulative) conversations with your coworkers, manager, HR, spouse, random dude on the street, everyone, would be if you could tell what they were really thinking.

This year I demoted mind-reading to my superpower slot number 2, superseding it with a new answer: Sleeplessness.

What I'm dreaming about is different than insomnia. What I'm dreaming of is not requiring sleep at all. Such a superpower would give you back 8 hours every single night (one third of your life!!), and also all the time wasted getting ready for bed, waking up in the morning (hitting snooze 3 or 5 times like I do), and suffering from general tiredness throughout the day.

My change-of-heart followed on the tails of reading Beggars in Spain, a 1993 Sci-Fi masterpiece (in my humble opinion) set in near-future America, in which in-vitro gene-modifications make it possible to create children who require no sleep. When I mentioned that to my friend John his first reaction was "no parent would EVER want a baby who doesn't sleep!" and that dynamic does come into play in the book, however it's [mostly] offset because the people who can afford gene-mod therapy, also can afford private overnight tutors for their Sleepless children.

The book is "SciFi," but it's less about the fictional science and more about the fascinating socio-political ramifications: because Sleepless children don't waste half their lives sleeping, they attain early academic success, advancing many classroom grade-levels beyond their physical years, and thus eventually become the top-rated lawyers, doctors, athletes, investors, etc. Unfortunately the human nature for the sleeper-counterparts remains similar to how we are today (fearing what is "different"); the Sleepless are ostracized, banned from competing in the Olympics, targeted by mob violence, over-taxed, and so on. I thought the book painted a fairly realistic picture of how this might go down. It also raises a fascinating dialogue about the famous words, "all men are created equal." All people may be created equal in human rights, but even today it is self-evident that not all people are created equal in abilities. Therefore, what obligations, if any, do those who have more talent and giftings owe toward those who don't? And by natural extension: what obligation, if any, do the rich have to the poor?

The book's title derives from an academic argument about handing out money to a group of beggars in Spain; if you give money to one beggar, but 100 more come to you, where do you draw the line? Is it the beggars' right to demand money from you, because you are able-bodied and able-financially, and they are not? Do productive members of society owe anything to those who are not productive (either from lack of ability, or by choice)? The wikipedia article articulates these questions better than I have.

Halfway through its story the book proposes a most elegant answer, that I absolutely have fallen in love with:
What the strong owe beggars is to ask each one why he is a beggar and act accordingly. Because community is the assumption, not the result. And only by giving non-productiveness the same individuality as excellence, and acting accordingly, does one fulfill the obligation to the beggars in Spain.

And as one last food-for-thought, toward the very end of the novel, was this:
There are no permanent beggars in Spain. Or anywhere else. The beggar you give a dollar to today, might change the world tomorrow. Or become father to the man who will. Or grandfather, or great-grandfather. There is no stable ecology of trade, as I thought once, when I was very young. There is no stable anything, much less stagnant anything given enough time. And no non-productive anything either. Beggars are only gene lines temporarily between communities.

As a man of faith who struggles with "what can I do? What should I do?", these are powerful excerpts.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I hope I'm grasping what you, as a man of faith, are asking.
I would suggest that in dealing with charity of any kind, that you use and/or develop an AMAZING sense of DISCERNMENT.
Whether you have "much" by the world's standard or not, discerning when it is "okay" or "right" to give is huge.
Some truly need it. Others never see it because the organization you gave to doles our PENNIES of help after operational costs are factored in.
It's huge.
It also must sit well with you if the person/organization DOES NOT use your donation wisely!
I had issue with this recently...with a fellow church-goer.
Anonymous donation....she squandered the opportunity....I told the church I wanted my gift back, so she is making payments back to me. It's a mess and not all of the resolution sits well with me...but I hope it's ALSO a lesson to the lady I gave it to!
Jeremy, just do what you feel led to do. Try to be discerning because if you see one hand, there's 10 more behind it. :)