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Confronting Economic Unworthiness

February 20, 2021 (807 words)

Those who scoff at the term “social justice” cannot all be dismissed as callous and crusty. The disdain is not always a sign of hard-heartedness. Deep down these skeptics frequently agree with the rest of us, and think society should strive to be just and equitable for all.

But in their mind, those most in need of assistance are too often guilty of not doing enough to better their own circumstances. Why knock ourselves out giving stuff to folks who are content to sit back and not really try? This is a common refrain in certain circles.

The dissenters have a point. There are plenty of otherwise healthy, able-bodied people who can’t seem to muster the energy needed to acquire the bare necessities of life, let alone take advantage of the opportunities available to them – meager though they may be – to get ahead in any measurable way.

“Sloth,” in case you were wondering, is the avoidance of physical (or spiritual) work, and there’s a reason it has made the list of the seven most debilitating psychological diseases (i.e. “sins”) that can befall a person. Heck, sloth is right up there with “greed.”

(The rest of the list, for those who go in for this sort of thing, consists of “pride,” “wrath,” “envy,” “lust”, and “gluttony” – in no particular order.)

However as a general rule, the virtuous individual should not be in the business of evaluating another’s relative worthiness before choosing to do the right thing him or herself. In other words, while we cannot alter another’s propensity for sloth, we can certainly limit our own temptation towards greed.

And make no mistake, squirrelling away an inordinate amount of life’s bounty for oneself (or one’s family) makes for a less just and equitable society, and this constitutes a form of greed. Not sharing with those who have less is a form of greed. No amount of pragmatic rationalization can justify such theft-by-omission.

But my how we do love to rationalize our preferences and peccadillos. We who have succeeded, or who at the very least have lifted ourselves out of a lower-class hell, tend to think we did it by the sweat of our own brow, through our own resourcefulness and industriousness. This, by the way, is where so many of us fall prey to one of those other deadly psychological diseases: pride.


The fact is, no one gets anywhere in this world without the help of others, or being at the right place at the right time, or getting an unexpected break that seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes whatever modest success is achieved can be chalked up to a fortuitous combination of all three.

In hindsight it’s hard to know what our own demeanor would have turned out to be if we were not the beneficiary of that timely help or that lucky break. We, too, may have ended up lacking all initiative, and found ourselves bereft of any enthusiasm for the daily grind.

Casually judging others to be unworthy of economic assistance is thus a dangerous trap. It comes from an indignant sense that “if I can do it, well then so can he.” This self-congratulatory attitude too easily shades into a brazen conceit, leading one to deny an obvious truth.

Each of us has been endowed with different gifts. Some of those gifts require more nurturing than others, and sadly not everyone receives the appropriate level of nurturing that allows their unique gift to flourish. By establishing an “obstacle free” pursuit of material advancement as our one-size-fits-all default cultural setting, we as a society have favored a certain type of personality possessed of a certain type of gift, and put another type at a distinct disadvantage.

This has prompted a willful disregard of inherent dignity, when the person in question appears to lack ambition. A form of arrogance has set in among the elect, as we blithely ignore another obvious truth: all good gifts come from above.

Those who succeed through native intelligence and dogged persistence are to be commended for responsibly using the gifts they have been given. But they are only doing what they were born to do – no more, and no less. Instead of strutting around at times like an obstinate peacock, we’d all be better off if such people could manage to keep things in perspective, and maintain more of a “poor in spirit” demeanor.

Like so many things, the positive ramifications of this humble approach have gone out of style over the last sixty years. Rediscovering its merits would enable us to dial back that outsized pride in our own accomplishments that can well up and have a blinding effect.

This, in turn, would help us avoid dismissing out of hand those we take at first glance to be unworthy of our economic consideration.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
February 20, 2021

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