In the now infamous secretly recorded tape, Mitt Romney said of 47 percent of the American population, "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." While this may be a coded way of blaming the victims of class distinction in this country, as a professor of pastoral theology and care, I can't resist taking the bait. What does it mean to take personal responsibility and care for our lives?
Personal responsibility and care sound like good things, and indeed they are. They conjure up images of hard work and self-determination, people living persistent and resilient lives. Yet such lives are by necessity lived in relation to others -- in families, communities, schools and other networks of belonging, groups where one is known and accepted for who one is. Care isn't something that any of us learns alone.
When we steer away from political ideology and look at real lives, this distinction becomes clear. Consider the story of Angela, a 24-year-old white woman and domestic worker in a small Northeastern city. She is struggling to decide whether it would be better for her kids if she stays with her abusive husband, because he has a job that feeds the family, or leaves him, because he is violent toward her and rough with the kids. If she leaves and takes her kids to a shelter, what will this do to their chances for good schooling, let alone food and clothing? If she stays, will the kids be irreparably scarred by fear, or possibly even be physically harmed themselves?
What do responsibility and care look like in Angela's life? If she takes her family to the shelter in order to protect them, she might be called a dependent mess, leaning on government hand-outs to survive, while taking her kids away from their dad, who does after all, help pay the bills. On the other hand, if Angela opts to stay with her spouse, and the abuse escalates, she might be judged one of those weak and irresponsible mothers, who put themselves and their kids at risk because they don't have the courage to walk out.
Who cares for Angela in this situation? Who cares for her kids? It seems to me that this family needs care and that we, the people, have some obligation to provide it. Whether Angela stays or goes, she will need help in managing this complex, debilitating and dangerous situation. Sometimes personal responsibility involves reaching out to get whatever help and services are available. If Angela calls for help, how will she be treated? If she is lucky, she may receive the services of a shelter, a counselor or even a truly caring pastor, rabbi or imam, who will not judge her or dismiss her concerns. With care from her community, Angela may have a chance to make a better life for herself and her kids.
The word "care," from the Latin cura has a therapeutic connotation. Caring for one's own life, one's own wellness and good, is a capacity that is learned in families that model respect and non-violence, gentleness and genuine concern, as well as fair and equitable sharing of resources. Family systems theory teaches that both togetherness and separateness, both community and individuality are important for full adult development. Interdependence, not individuality, is the sign of a mature and caring life.
One way of insuring greater care for children and for parents like Angela would be to pass the domestic worker's bill of rights, which California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed on Sunday. This bill would have required employers to provide overtime pay and meal breaks to childcare workers and housekeepers. These are basic minimum standards for a caring society. Personal responsibility and care do not exist in a vacuum. The quality of the emotional, spiritual and material care that children and parents experience profoundly influences their capacity to grow and flourish, as well as to care for others.
I think that Mitt Romney knows this. He, after all, has had the benefit of religious belonging his whole life, as a Mormon. It is disingenuous for him to imply that personal responsibility trumps all of the odds that people are born with through no fault or merit of their own. The "I built it" mentality that overlooks the interdependent nature of human lives, and aggrandizes the fortunate few who have accrued great wealth, overlooks the ways in which all of us depend on care and services from others from the cradle to the grave. This is not only a transparent ploy for maintaining the growing economic divide between classes of people in this country; it is also profoundly un-caring.
While it is true that some individuals do overcome great odds to earn large paychecks, it does not follow that the majority of people in this country who do not have great wealth are any less caring or responsible human beings. The size of one's bank account isn't the litmus test for personal responsibility and care. The quality of one's networks of belonging just might be.
Mary Clark Moschella is Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School. Clark Moschella is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.