The news of billionaire Robert F. Smith’s announcement that he would pay off the student loans of Morehouse College’s Class of 2019 has been celebrated for several days now. This gift undoubtedly changes the lives of hundreds of young men forever. What was earmarked for paying off debt can now be used for buying homes or investing in graduate school or paying forward the fruits of their own successes.
I am so happy for them.
And I also wonder about the students who graduated with no student loans. Surely there are many young men in this class whose parents saved up to pay for their college educations. Maybe there were grandparents who made sacrifices. Maybe they sold property or other treasures to cover college.
They who worked hard to keep their sons and grandsons from incurring debt will not benefit from Mr. Smith’s extraordinary gift. And yet, I hope they can be thoroughly happy for those whose debts are covered.
I hope all of us are happy for anyone whose debts are covered. But one of the trends I see these days is a hesitance – if not a resentment – over giving those who struggle a leg up. Increasingly, we blame the poor for their poverty. We consider those who struggle wholly responsible for their financial situations.
We who were born on third base forget that most of the world struggles to get to first.
One of the blessings of living in a civil society is that we are a community interested in the common good. We are happy for others’ good fortune. We rejoice when our neighbors prosper. And this means that – in our efforts to build each other up – life is not fair.
Life. Is. Not. Fair.
This is the truth and it’s not bad news. If life were fair, all of us would be in big, big trouble cosmically. (I say this as a lifelong Presbyterian.) I do not in any way deserve the life I now enjoy. I won the genetic lottery at birth as the desired child of two parents who offered me a safety net for the entirety of their lives, whose network of family and friends have benefited me throughout my existence. They were not wealthy by the standards of the community in which we lived, but by global standards, they were astoundingly rich. I was blessed with piano lessons and braces and medical care. I enjoyed vacations and abundant food and my own bedroom. I deserved none of this while many of my classmates – not to mention neighbors in the world’s poorest nations – had none of these things. Life is not fair.
I believe that God desires every human being to have basic needs: food, shelter, health care, sanitary conditions. Every human should be paid a living wage for their labor. Every human should have a safety net. And God has given us the responsibility for ensuring this for our neighbors.
Thank God for Robert F. Smith who has taken financial burdens from hundreds of young men – because he could. Who among us could do more to relieve the burdens of our neighbors – but we don’t?
Everyday, there are stories in the news of the lack of affordable housing, abject poverty in our rural communities as well as our cities, families ruined because of a lack of health care or the inability to afford it. This – I believe – is a sin.
Does everybody deserve a home? Health care? Food? Education? Yes. Maybe you worked hard for yours. Maybe someone (parents, grandparents) worked hard to get you yours. Maybe you are in a position to expect your heart’s desire. Wonderful. I am happy for you.
Can we also be happy when others receive their heart’s desire? I hope so. It is one of the great joys of life to change people’s lives for good, whether they deserve it or not. Do any of us truly deserve the blessings we have?
Image by Steve Schaefer/Associated Press of 2019 graduates of Morehouse College in Atlanta.