Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Car-Free in Tennessee: Rights vs Privileges

Having a 16 year old and another child who's starting to push the boundaries into adolescence, we do a lot of talking about the difference between rights and privileges. I define rights as those things that make us secure as human beings and members of a family and community and, in the case of my children, will allow them to grow into happy, positively functioning adults. Rights are the basics: Healthy food, clothing and shelter, health care. Rights are also those things that nurture us: Love, acceptance, respect, some amount of privacy, positive discipline, etc. Rights may fluctuate according to the needs of the individual and the family dynamic. What is a right for a child at two may be vastly different than what that child, as a teen, needs.

Privileges are the icing,the extras; they're not a given. I think of privileges as rewards; they're what we earn for hard work or extra attention. For my children, privileges are things like "screen time" (computer, movies, video games), being driven to social activities, sometimes books, etc. When my kids do not do the things that are expected of them (usually in regard to schoolwork, but sometimes chores or being disrespectful of others) the usual disciplinary action is that they lose one or more of their privileges.

Yesterday, I was thinking about wanting to go somewhere and trying to figure out the schedule between Hammy's job and mine, picking up Declan from his after school activity and getting us home after aikido. The event I wanted to attend is important; it's a fund-raiser for a friend who has cancer. As I thought about it, I saw the dilemma in terms of rights versus privileges. Hammy wants us to buy another car as soon as possible. The children constantly complain about having to walk and ride the bus, about not getting to do everything they want when they want because we don't have a second car. But, is it really hurting us to have only one car? Is it hurting the children to be walking? Does it hurt me to miss the fund-raiser tonight?

I am American: "It's not just your car...it's your freedom" American. I was practically born in a car. Many Americans, particularly those in the South, would argue that owning a car is one of the rights of being American. I don't think so but I'm only now coming to understand what owning a car does mean. Owning a car means that I can do what I want, when I want to (me, me, me). Not owning a car means that I have to organize my time and schedule my activities around a bus schedule, which means that I miss some activities. Is participating in those activities a right? Some are, like feeling socially connected at homeschool play-day and being a part of our spiritual community at Friends Meeting. If I make those activities a priority, I can schedule our time so we can get to them, then the other, non priority activities can either be done or not done as time and bus schedules allow.

If owning a car is a privilege, what did I do to earn the privilege? Being born American is not enough justification. In my mind, with privilege comes responsibility. If I own a car, what are my responsibilities? The first thing that comes to mind is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by cars and the depletion of fossil fuels. Shouldn't the first responsibility be to off-set the harm done by driving a car? Have I ever done anything to repair the damage I've done by driving? Nope, because I had thought of the car as a right rather than a privilege. The pollution was just an unfortunate side-effect of my right to drive.

Maybe I'm turning Amish in my thinking. At this moment (in the lovely, temperate autumn), I feel that the quality of my life is greatly improved by not owning a car. I am being forced to simplify and prioritize, which is always good. In a way, thinking about my relationship with society, culture and car-owning rights is like exploring my relationship with super-ego. Pretty much every aspect of our culture says that not only should I own a car, but that I must own a car. I'd thought I was fairly counter-culture (homebirth, homeschool, vegetarian, Quaker, feminist, progressive, etc) but this whole issue of car ownership is showing me that I have completely internalized some of society's expectations and assumptions.

I will not be attending the fund-raiser tonight. I'll be missing a bunch of great performers and will not see a lot of friends in a cool setting. I won't be on-hand to show support for my friend and her family. Instead, I will send a check to the bank account set up for her and I will take a casserole to her family in a week or so. I'll email her to let her know I'm thinking about her and I'll hold her and her family in the Light of God's love. Thinking of all the things I can do for her is, in many ways, better for me than just showing up tonight. If I showed up tonight and wrote out a check, I might feel "off the hook." Because I can't attend, I am thinking about what my friend needs and I'm actively committing to do for her and her family. I have been and will continue to hold her in the Light. Missing out is making me more aware. And maybe that's the shift I need in many areas of my life. A metaphorical "missing out" which makes me more aware.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

Really, really nice post. Well-written and thoughtful. I appreciate that you make your thinking about privilege transparent. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this.

I'd originally come for selfish reasons, and got something I didn't expect but needed to hear.

So for my 'selfish' reason: I've done a pseudo-meme and am asking (not requiring or 'tagging') people to participate in it on their blogs. I know you have a concern about class in the RSoF and thought you might be interested in participating. Check out my most recent post.