Friday, March 1, 2013

On the Cusp of Medicare

Today my Medicare coverage kicks in! (I had always assumed it would start later this month when I turn 65, but signing my newly arrived Medicare card the other day I realized it doesn't actually wait for my birthday to go into effect but starts today, March 1.  There are not a lot of things one gets to look froward to at this stage in life, but Medicare is certainly one of them!

Medicare is one of those great governmental accomplishments of the 20th century. It took a lot longer than it should have to get it passed, of course; but that's the way it is in the U.S., where some of the basics of life in a civilized society still remain controversial. Of all the Great Society innovations, Medicare may have been the most successful. Certainly it changed the landscape from one in which the elderly were relatively poor to one in which they are relatively affluent. Of course, the growing cost of Medicare is now a serious societal problem. But the problem is not the cost of Medicare per se, but the cost of health care in general - in a society which still spends more on healthcare while getting less benefit for cost than any other advanced society.

Getting Medicare is one of those great milestones in the modern American lifespan. Of course, getting old is very much in the news lately, thanks to Pope Benedict's history-making and precedent-shattering decision to resign the papacy rather than burden the Church with his increasing infirmity and incapacity to carry out the excessive demands of the office in its contemporary incarnation. 

It's in the nature of monarchies for things to slow down as the sovereign ages. That's always been part of the cyclic nature of governance - new energy at the beginning of a new reign, slowing down as the reign comes to its natural end. That's the way it was in the mid-1950s as Pius XII aged and the machinery of the Holy See inevitably slowed down. As recently as then, that was something the Church could easily manage to live with. The accelerated demands on the Pope today - especially the public performative part of today's on-camera and on-the-road petrine ministry - makes many more demands on the physical strength of the occupant of Peter's throne. And Pope Benedict responded accordingly - with wisdom we can all benefit from as we process our own transition to old age.

Especially when we are invested with an office of importance - ordinary priest no less than pope - it can be tempting to think that one doesn't have to slow down and readjust as one ages. Praying my Office yesterday, I was struck by the relevance of the 1st reading in the Office - from Exodus 18. It recounts how Moses sat in judgment for the people, who waited about him from morning until evening. When Jethro, Moses' father-in-law observed this, he challenged Moses: "You are not acting wisely," he said. "You will surely wear yourself out, and not only yourself but also these people with you. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone."

Wise counsel indeed! Moses, who (Hollywood notwithstanding) was no longer a young man at this point,  took his-father-in-law's advice and lightened his workload. Would that all of us - whatever our work, profession, or vocation - could also internalize that lesson! Dedication to duty is a high value - if anything insufficiently appreciated in today's narcissistic culture. But recognizing one's limits is also a value - and is itself a duty. The tension between one's total commitment to one's duty and recognizing one's very real limits needs to be balanced by wisdom and humility. The Pope has set a good example here - one that has applications for all of us whatever we do and whatever our age.

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