Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

The cost of being poor

One of the oddities of our current economic system in the United States is that it is costly to be poor. I cannot offer any brilliant solution to fix that problem, but for those who haven’t noticed the problem, I can describe it.

Banks favor wealthy people over poor people. Keep a minimum balance in your account, and you will be charged fewer fees to use the bank. If you are close to breaking even but you accidently overdraw your account, banks will charge a fee for attempting to spend money you don’t have. Wealthy people never have to worry about insufficient fund fees. Of course it would be ridiculous to demand that banks change the way they work. A bank would go out of business if it waived these policies for everyone who is poor.

If you are wealthy, it’s easy to get a loan. Banks are happy to lend money to customers who are able to repay the loan. If you are poor, you are unlikely to get a loan. You might have the greatest invention in the world and just need a few thousand dollars to start a business, but if you don’t already have those thousands of dollars, they are difficult to find. Again, no one can change the way loans work; banks would go out of business loaning money to people who cannot repay those loans.

Credit cards are a wonderful convenience when you are able to pay the full balance every month. That’s really the wisest way to use a credit card. They can also be a convenience, though, when you have a sudden unexpected emergency—a car repair, for example, or replacing a broken appliance. The danger of that convenience is that now you have a debt that increases monthly due to interest charges. Then, if money is tight for other reasons and you miss a payment, penalties are added to the debt you already have. Credit works that way, and its basic rules are not going to change. But the credit card business is more likely to hurt poor people than wealthy people.

Rural poor have fewer resources than urban poor. They cannot take advantage of mass transportation, and they are farther away from social services offices. However, the urban poor face additional costs that the rural poor (and the wealthy) do not have. Living in the least costly neighborhoods coexists with greater danger from crime and from gang violence. For that reason, property insurance and automobile insurance are higher for people who live in those areas. These higher insurance costs lead to higher prices for gasoline and groceries in the city. Moreover, sales taxes usually are higher in the city. Higher prices and higher insurance rates make it difficult for families to save enough money to move to less dangerous and less expensive surroundings.

“There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). The Law of God demanded compassion and justice for all people. Every seventh year debts were forgiven, slaves were freed; and every fiftieth year property that had been sold was returned to its family. God’s people were commanded to help the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. A cloak that had been given as security on a loan was to be returned by sundown. In the courts, poor people and rich people were to be regarded equally. Workers were to be paid their wages at the end of each workday. Harvesters were commanded to leave behind scraps for the poor to glean.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). God knew that his commands would not be obeyed. Jesus reminded his apostles of this verse when they objected to the perfume that had been poured on him. They said that the money would have been better used to help the poor. Jesus answered, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” Poverty cannot be ended by legislation. Taking money from the rich to give to the poor did not end poverty in Robin Hood’s day, and it will not work today.

On the other hand, God still expects compassion from his people. The knowledge that there will never cease to be poor in the land motivates Christians to help as they can. No one deserves to be poor. Some wealthy people use their wealth in various ways to help the poor—gifts of food, clothing, or shelter; scholarships to open opportunities for the poor; financial support for libraries, museums, and hospitals; endowments to fund research to combat diseases and other problems that plague poor people more than wealthy people. Investing in businesses that provide jobs also gives help to the poor.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “It’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either.” Until the Day of the Lord, there will never cease to be poor in the land. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking God to help the poor as well as ourselves. Our compassion for the poor is the beginning of God’s answer to this prayer. J.