Monday, September 28, 2009

Does Wendell Potter Both Mirror the Worst, and Model the Best in Us?

“That which we witness, we are forever changed by, and once witnessed we can never go back.”
Angeles Arrien

Wendell Potter is a former CIGNA executive turned whistle-blower, and current fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. He had a successful career with Cigna as director of corporate communications, liked his co-workers very much, and was well compensated financially in addition to enjoying numerous perks. So why did he leave and then become adversary to an industry that had treated him so well?

In July of 2007, shortly after Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” was released (a movie by the way that he worked very hard to discredit, only to later admit that it had been “an honest film”) Potter paid a visit to his parents in Tennessee. While there, he read about a health clinic that was being held in nearby Wise county Virginia by the Remote Area Medical Clinic Volunteer Core and decided to check it out. What he witnessed there shook him to the core and brought him to tears. The clinic was being held at the local fairgrounds where thousands of people (some of whom had driven from Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina) were waiting in seemingly endless lines for healthcare delivered in animal stalls. When recalling that July day, Potter told Bill Moyers on Bill Moyers Journal, “It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost– what country am I in? … it just didn’t seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me.”

Craig Keilburger and Marc Kelburger, founders of “Free the Children and authors of the best selling book, “ME to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World” explore how perfectly good people like you and I come to defend ourselves against the large scale suffering of others by blocking it out and going about business as usual. One way we do this is to distance ourselves from those who are hurting by “convincing ourselves that ‘they’ are not like ‘us.’…We may blame them for their circumstances, emphasizing or imagining all the weaknesses and failures of that group that have led to these circumstances. We may try to ignore the external factors, the political, ideological, economic, military and other forces that shaped their fates from the outside… Seeing people in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms makes it easier to dehumanize and devalue them, to assume that there are fundamental differences between us and them, and to blame them for their suffering. Thinking in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms also makes it easier to reduce people to numbers, to conveniently forget about their individuality.”

Suddenly confronted with the desperation and suffering surrounding him at the fairgrounds that day, his defenses began to crumble. He’d been insulated in his high- rise Philadelphia office, flying corporate jets, surrounded by the vestiges of wealth, and served lunches on gold trimmed plates. He hadn’t truly known “what was really going on,” he explained to Moyers. He was aware that 47 million people were uninsured, and that among the insured, there were many who could not afford to pay their deductibles, but he had never attached real live faces to those numbers. In a town not far from the one he grew up in, Wendell Potter had an epiphany. “There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up …in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.”

In December, five months after his fateful visit to the fairgrounds, 17 year old Nataline Sarkisyan died the very night that Cigna reversed its decision (under tremendous pressure) to deny coverage for a liver transplant. Here was yet another real person in lieu of a statistic, a young woman with hopes and dreams and whose parents loved her very much, just as Wendell loved his own daughter. In addition to dealing with his feelings regarding Nataline’s death, he was inundated with angry and accusatory calls and letters from people all over the country. In January, Potter informed CIGNA that he would be resigning.

On June 24th, in Philadelphia, he testified before a U.S. Senate Committee. His opening remarks included, “My name is Wendell Potter and for 20 years, I worked as a senior executive at health insurance companies, and I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick — all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors. I know from personal experience that members of Congress and the public have good reason to question the honesty and trustworthiness of the insurance industry. Insurers make promises they have no intention of keeping, they flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and they make it nearly impossible to understand — or even to obtain — information we need.”

Three months later he met with the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and warned, “…if Congress goes along with the so-called ‘solutions’ the insurance industry says it is bringing to the table and acquiesces to the demands it is making of lawmakers, and if it fails to create a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, the bill it sends to the president might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.” He further explained that the Baucus plan would enable insurers to charge the elderly and families up to 7.5 times as much as younger people, weaken state regulation of insurers, fail to make affordable coverage for those currently insured more available, or stop the increase in medical bankruptcy. Instead, the Baucus bill would insure a huge new stream of revenue for the insurance companies as individuals were forced to purchase insurance policies and taxpayers were required to finance the necessary subsidies for those who could not afford the premiums.

Potter also stressed to congress that the public option should “not just be an ‘option’ to be bargained away at the behest of insurance companies who are pouring money into Congress to defeat substantial and essential reforms. A public option must be created to provide true choice to consumers or reform will fail to truly fix the root of the severe problems that have been caused in large part by the greedy demands of Wall Street. By creating a strong public option and restricting the insurance industry's ability to enrich executives and investors at the expense of taxpayers and consumers, H.R. 3200 will truly benefit average Americans. The Baucus plan, on the other hand, would create a government-subsidized monopoly for the purchase of bare bones, high-deductible policies that would truly benefit Big Insurance. In other words, insurers would win; your constituents would lose.”

I am grateful to Wendell Potter. Yes, it’s certainly true that he was aware of the unethical and in some cases deadly practices of his industry, and he actively participated in many of them, however, how different was he really from the rest of us? How different is he from those of us who turn away when the faces of starving children flash across our television screen while a narrator urges us to commit to just dollars a day (less than the cost of a large Starbucks coffee) to help feed these children? How different is he from those of us who are well aware of the wrongs committed by our own industries while we continue to show up for work each day and collect our paychecks? How different is he from those who die each and every year from “karosh,i” the Japanese term for death due to job related stress and overwork; those poor souls (my own husband came very close to being one of them) who dragged themselves to work every day while knowing at some level that their current jobs were truly ‘killing’ them? How is it that in a free and democratic society according to David Johnson “Americans put in more hours at work than any other nation, surpassing even the workaholic Japanese. We average nine more weeks of labor per year than our working counterparts in Western Europe, who get at least 20 paid days of vacation each year.”

It’s been said that evil prevails when good people do nothing to stop it. I am one of those people who on far too many occasions have done nothing. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wisely pointed out, “In regards to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.” Wendell Potter, from my perspective, is most definitely a guilty man. He is also a product of his society, a society that according to Paul Rogat Loeb, “has systematically taught us to ignore the ills we see, and leave them to others to handle.” Wendell Potter is working very diligently to right the wrongs that he both witnessed and participated in committing. What about those of us who stand by and do nothing while special interest groups twist the facts and feed the fears of misinformed but perfectly good people? What about those of us who refuse to take a stand while thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children die each year in the United States of America because they lack access to proper health care? We might, just might, escape the guilt, but we cannot escape the responsibility.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Lecture by Karen Armstrong on A Charter for Compassion

On Fora Tv a lecture by author, theologian, and former nun, Karen Armstrong on the Charter for Compassion was delivered at Chautauqua. You can watch her wise and very important lecture here

On the website Armstrong explains why the Charter for Compassion is so important:

"It is bitterly ironic that our world is so dangerously polarized at a time when we are linked together -- electronically, financially and politically -- closely than ever before. The powerful nations can no longer ignore trouble spots in other parts of the world; what happens in Iraq, Gaza or Afghanistan is likely to have repercussions tomorrow in London or New York. But the atrocities of September 11, 2001 and its tragic aftermath split the world into rival camps that are growing daily more estranged.

The religions that should help to heal these divisions have themselves been gravely implicated in the terrorism and violence of our time. Actually, the chief cause of our present troubles is political but in regions of the world where warfare has become chronic -- the Middle East, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya -- religion has been sucked into the vicious cycle of aggression, strike and counter-strike.

Yet at the core of every single one of the world religions is the virtue of compassion, which does not mean "pity"; its Latin root means to feel with the other. Each one of the world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule -- Do not treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself -- and maintained that this is the prime religious duty." You can read the entire article here

Armstrong describes her work on Bill Moyers Journal ,

"My work has continually brought me back to the notion of compassion. Whichever religious tradition I study, I find at the heart of it is the idea of feeling with the other, experiencing with the other, compassion. And every single one of the major world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule. Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

....We've got to do better than this. Compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn't mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what's motivating the other, learning about their grievances."

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Transitions and September in Maine

I love Maine in September. I savor its gentle temperatures, mist filled mornings, and its quiet country roads. While I’ll admit that there’s a slight melancholy in the air as summer drifts relentlessly backward into the past, there’s a whiff of promise too. The leaves are beginning their spectacular turning, the apples and pumpkins grow closer to harvest with the dawn of each new day, and tomatoes hang ripe and juicy on the vine.

Autumn is a time of both abundance and disintegration, of brilliant vistas and diminishing light. In the midst of plenty, as we gather the harvest, the cooling mornings and shortened days inform us that winter is on its way. Making this transition can be particularly challenging to embrace for those of us who reside in the north country. And yet, embrace it we must if we want to participate as fully as possible in the enduring cycles of nature and in our own inevitable evolution. Everything changes, and just as whole new vistas open up in winter, I am reminded that each and every ending contains its own beginning. Transition periods whether welcomed or not very often compel us to stretch and grow, offering us a certain amount of grace if we will only try our best to meet them with acceptance and receptivity.

Joan Chittister in, “Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir observed, “Transitions complete us. We ripen. We learn. We hurt. We survive one thing after another…Then, in the end, we gain what we came to get – a kind of well worn, hard-won wisdom… the problem is that we all too seldom bother to stop and notice how much we have become in the process.” Each September finds me in a different place than I was the one before. Last year was filled with change, challenge, and celebration. This September finds me struggling to keep a healthy perspective as I slowly and faithfully work my way through grief.

Perhaps I love September so much because it symbolizes on some level crossing over a threshold. Just as the natural world begins once more its seasonal process of transformation - from summer to fall, fall to winter and finally winter to spring- we are reminded that during the course of our lives the landscape of both our bodies and our souls is altered again and yet again.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood

In Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood", Wayne Muller observed that those who suffered in childhood, while baring painful scars, invariably exhibit exceptional strengths including remarkable insight, creativity, and a profound inner wisdom. He challenges those of us who have suffered to not perceive ourselves as broken and damaged, nor to disown those dark and wounded places in ourselves, but instead to work to reawaken that which is wisest, strongest and whole within us.

In working with victims of childhood trauma, Muller noted that while still haunted by the past, many also develop an acute sensitivity to others as well as a tendency to seek beauty, love and peace. He writes, "Seen through this lens, family sorrow is not only a painful wound to be endured, analyzed and treated. It may in fact become a seed that gives birth to our spiritual healing and awakening."

It's been my own experience as a therapist that this is often the case with survivors of childhood trauma. While not all survivors with whom I've worked possess the characteristics that Muller so respectfully describes, I'm almost always touched by their strength and depth. Each person has brought to therapy his or her own unique skills, stories, and beauty - gifts that truly seemed to be forged to a significant degree in the flames of the very pain they now seek to escape.

Muller assures the reader that suffering and pain are not exceptions to the human condition. Instead they are inevitable threads that make up the tapestry of a life. He cautions us to not become entangled in our memories of childhood suffering - to not let our pain resonate throughout the whole of our lives. He also points out that many of us would prefer to explain our hurt rather than to feel it. He advises that we acknowledge our pain, allow ourselves to experience it, and then to look for the lessons it will inevitably teach if we only look and listen, particularly to the wisdom contained within the depths of our very own souls.

While I never, under any circumstances want to minimize or justify the pain of another, nor suggest that anyone be grateful for their suffering, I do try to gently suggest to my clients (when they are ready to consider the suggestion) that even the most painful path can be a pathway to possibilities not yet discovered.

There have been many hurtful experiences in my own life that I would have adamantly refused to face had I been given the choice. I am also aware that to deny the value of the message, in spite of how painful the lesson or unwelcome the messenger, only serves to add insult to injury. If you have no choice for the time being but to travel a difficult path, at the very least, why not claim all possible compensations along the way?