Recently I watched the extremely entertaining and rage-inducing Daily Show response to the Fox News response to the Daily Show piece on Fox News’s obsession with people who are enjoying life on food stamps a little too much. Go watch the whole thing; it’s worth it. Short version: apparently it’s a terrible injustice against the world when people on food stamps use them to buy something nicer than bread and water (and also there’s this one guy who totally abuses the system), or who maybe use the rules to get the maximum number of food stamps available. (But, Stewart goes on to show, when corporations use the rules of income tax to avoid paying any, that’s just good business–we would all do that.)
Anyway, I thought about that and why people are so angry that these poor people on food stamps are, one, trying to survive the best they can, and two, maybe trying to make their lives a little less grim. And it reminded me a bit of the opposition to gay marriage. One of the big cries, you will remember, was that gay marriage would ruin straight marriage, which was incomprehensible to those of us who have no intention of stealing already-married straight spouses to gay marry. I think it’s related, though.
We have this sort of entitlement complex that in its simplest form manifests as getting angry when someone cuts in front of us in line. A line is a very simple system: those who have been waiting the longest get in next. But when someone cuts in line, they’re not playing by the rules. They’ll get in ahead of someone who waited longer, and that’s not fair(*).
*You know, unless they had a friend saving a spot for them, in which case it’s maybe okay, as long as it’s not like one person letting in six more.
Similarly, a lot of the Fox News demographic sees their lifestyle as tied to their worth as a person. They have jobs, they work hard, they get to buy lobster. Seeing some unemployed person who has to get food stamps to survive standing with them in the lobster line makes their lobster feel less valuable. Hey, if you can get lobster by just telling the government you’re poor, why am I busting my ass every day at this job? Similarly, because certain straight (or straight-acting, let’s be honest) people feel that they are more virtuous than gay people because they’re following God’s word (or, in some cases, denying their own same-sex attractions), and marriage is one of the rewards they get for that. So what use is it being a good person if these gay people can just go ahead and get married too? It’s also, incidentally, why people resent rich people who were born into their money. I work every day just to scrape by and this guy never did a day’s work in his life.
Here’s the thing: outside of the tiny, ephemeral closed system of a line, you can’t base your opinion of yourself and your lifestyle on what other people do. Trying to compare dinner menus or marriage licenses outside of the context of a person’s life is pointless. Sure, you can find examples of gay (and straight) people who should definitely not be married. You can find examples of poor (and rich) people who exploit government largesse. But you know what? Those people aren’t your problem. You are your problem. And for every person who abuses a system or institution, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, who are trying to live as best they can. So don’t think you know who someone is because of what they’re buying with their food stamps. Don’t let someone else’s enjoyment of life affect your own. You work hard for what you do, or you don’t. You’re happy with who you are, or you’re not. Work on that. Enjoy your life.
I have a quotation on my desk, or, more accurately, a paraphrased quotation from William Faulkner. It’s about writing but can also apply to so many other things: “Don’t bother being better than others. Be better than yourself.”
Except for people who cut in line. Be better than those people, because they’re assholes.