I’ve been going to the same dental surgery here in Cambridge, England for nine years. During that time, I have been re-cycled to six different dentists working in the office. Several of the dentists have been quite good. Nonetheless, it has been a de-personalizing experience. It makes me feel like a mechanical mouth with teeth that need adjusting occasionally. The situation is similar with the doctor whom I have been seeing for the last nine years. His appointments are scheduled to last seven minutes. This is not his fault. It’s what is considered efficient management, and although he has never rushed me out of his office before covering the essentials for whatever reason I might be there, he knows, to this day, almost nothing about me as a person. I saw something similar beginning to happen in the university where I was teaching in the States. Students were too often becoming numbers – not individuals.
Britons are quite rightly proud of their health service which provides medical help without charge to the individual when they need it – whether they are rich or poor or belong to any other category of the dispossessed. It was set up by a Labour government after WWII when the country saw families of men and women who had sacrificed their lives for their country unable to get even the simplest medical help when they needed it.
That sense of fairness is deep in this country, and I admire it profoundly. By and large, there is a sense that, regardless of cost, people should not starve, children should have an education, families should not be forced to live on the street. There is a national commitment to what one might call a “safety net,” and a recognition that, whether it be bad luck, immaturity, poor judgement, or even sheer self-interest gone array, all of us at some point in our lives need a helping hand.
But the history of the last 100 years demonstrates that there are downsides to systems intended to serve all the people equally.
Two of the most widely recognized are corruption by those in positions of power and authority who, instead of serving others, are using the funds intended for this laudable purpose to enrich themselves. The second problem is that there are inevitably people who decide to rip off the system by receiving benefits instead of working, even when jobs are available and they are able to work.
But there is another downside to thinking that any system can create a just and fair society by itself. It doesn’t matter what that system is – whether it is religious or not, whether it is democratic or not, whether it was designed in the first place to support a generous and loving society.
A system that works must be operated by individuals who care about the people they serve. If people running the system care more about their careers than they care about the people they are serving, the system breaks down. If teachers work primarily for a salary and not first because they care about Jerry or Susan sitting in front of them, if doctors treat patients because they care more about their promotions than because they care about that person with a medical need, if social workers care less about the individual they are caring for than they care about getting paid, the system doesn’t work. If workers unions fight only for the material benefits of their members without concern for the individuals whom they are meant to be serving, the system cannot achieve its end. Or if, in the name of efficiency, the system squeezes out the individual and reduces him or her to merely a symptom, a number, an object, the system is broken.
The system needs people who care as much for the people they are intended to serve as they care for themselves and their own careers, and who are given sufficient leeway to express that care. The system needs them from top to bottom.
As an adolescent, I thought I was smart enough to implement a system that could transform human suffering. I thought I would be a Very Important Person, someone who was recognized as having made a great contribution to mankind.
But even if I’d been a great deal smarter than I am, I could not have done it. Because systems need individuals who care, who love the people they are serving. No system, no organization, no religion or system of government, even ones set up “for the people by the people” can ever work without each of us. We might feel like small little cogs in a system that hardly matter, that can’t really make a difference.
But it’s not the system that holds your hand when you are frightened. It’s not the system that gives you a smile when you are feeling lonely or depressed. It’s not the system that gives you that special encouragement you need to learn how to read when you are stumbling. It’s a single person who knows you, who cares about you as a unique person, for yourself.
And there’s no replacement for that. There isn’t any substitute in any system in the world. A system that is not filled with people who care cannot work.