Privileged Thoughts

The last gift my mother gave me was the chance to imagine my end of days -my family watching me die and moving on without me.  In the last 90 days of her life, my mother went from independent materfamilias to a wisp on a bed. She was annoyed sometimes.  Scared often.  In pain most of the time.  She worried about my brother and myself. She was kind to her caregivers even when they hurt her and grateful to her children and grandchildren who stayed by her.  We wanted to protect her and keep her company but we wanted her company.  We craved the time with her to learn everything and listen.

In the weeks and months that have passed, I have remarked often that my mother taught me more in those last 3 months about what I want and expect for my family and for myself than in the 60 years that came before.

As I reflect on the news this week, I know that what I experienced last summer with my mother was an example of deep sadness and grief, but a clean grief.  There were no villains.  There was little anger.  What I experienced was the natural devastation of watching the body of a loved one sicken, suffer and die.

My mother’s death was an example of our expectation that she would be treated with dignity and kindness surrounded by people who treated her and her family with respect.

Privilege does not fall only around racial lines, but I do understand the expectation of a certain kind of treatment, a certain level of respect and a certain level of kindness.  It is an expectation that my mother had even though she was born poor.  My mother’s family home did not have an indoor toilet until she paid to have one installed with money she earned as a young nurse.

White privilege is not an accusation.

White privilege is not to say that social and financial class are irrelevant. 

White privilege is an unspoken and usually invisible expectation in our society that you will receive a certain level of respect and fairness that you do not have to earn.  It is typically imperceptible to white people like myself until we watch similar privileges denied to others. 

We live and die in a complicated society.  The peace my family was able to experience during my mother’s last illness was enhanced by a lifetime of my parents’ careful choices and work that left my mother with good health insurance and access to medical care.  Those choices and the building of those resources were, in my view, an example of their expectation that if they followed through with a series of actions they were creating a future of some predictability and equity.

To me, that is white privilege.  A sense that you live in a world with some rational order.  An idea that your life is of some de facto importance, just because you arrived on the planet.  That is the world my mother embodied and raised us in.  I do not believe she took that privilege from someone else, but I do believe she and now I have enjoyed it usually unconsciously. 

All humans suffer. 
There is no Suffering Olympics.

I encourage my family and friends who may push back at the idea of White Privilege to lean into the concept if for no other reason than millions of our colleagues, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens tell us that it exists.  What have any of us to lose by listening and trying to understand.

Loss, illness, death, and grief come for all of us.  How can we show up for each other, protect each other, keep each other company and extend the privileges of respect and kindness.  My mother’s final days showed me something I wanted to cultivate in my life, in spite of all the pain. This week is one more reminder that standing in solidarity with our fellow citizens, friends and loved ones through suffering is the greatest of privileges.

Here to learn and here to listen.

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