The things we value - and the people we don’t

“Affordable housing is wonderful in concept, as long as it’s not too close to us.”
“Affordable housing is wonderful in concept, as long as it’s not too close to us.” jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The suitcase, burgundy and battered, was delivered on a later flight. Members of our parish had headed to a nearby apartment with the family, newly arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. I offered to wait for the missing bag and now gingerly moved it to my car, the zipper straining in tender places.

I had met the mom, dad, and two small children briefly when they’d landed about 90 minutes earlier and I half expected they wouldn’t answer when I knocked. They had to be exhausted, acclimating to a brand-new country, and mine was one more travel-blurred face.

But the door flew open, and I was greeted like a relative they feared they’d never see again. More accurately, the suitcase was. Unzipping it, their joy was unmistakable as they unpacked clothes, bags of spices, other possessions, and the unstated became manifest — that every material tie to their former lives was contained in their luggage. Until the missing bag arrived, they had thought a significant portion of it lost forever.

What if you had to cull down everything that mattered into a couple of suitcases? Snippets of your children’s growing up. Recipes written in your grandmother’s hand. Photos collected over the years. Your Bible. What would you choose?

We live in a supremely disposable culture. Cell phones are built to be quickly upgraded. Computer printers are no longer worth the cost of repair. We construct pressed board furniture of finite durability. Defined by so much planned obsolescence, it begs the question what we value.

This cycle of acquiring more so that we can throw it away feeds the narrative of scarcity versus abundance. We are frantically afraid we will never have enough even as everything we have is insufficient, inadequate, or outdated.

Increasingly, that intersects with how we treat people, how attitudes toward those who are marginalized are framed. Some are disposable, less valuable, not worthy of our care or attention. Being open to them might somehow limit what is available to us. We accumulate more things than we could ever need even as we vilify those we think might limit what we have.

Making health care accessible to all is deemed to be too expensive even though denying it costs us immeasurably, not just in dollars but in the well-being of our siblings. We must not believe that they are worth the investment we would make in their health.

Affordable housing is wonderful in concept, as long as it’s not too close to us. If gentrification pushes people out of their neighborhoods, the problem is theirs not the people who displaced them. We may find it inconvenient when they live on the streets but we are most outraged when it affects the value or aesthetics of our home, when they occupy “our best entrances to buildings.”

The anxiety provoked by immigrants unearths all sorts of places where fears flourish — of brown people, non-English speaking people, and people living in poverty. We really do not want their jobs, but we’d rather the work go undone than let someone have it if we consider them undeserving. We don’t judge them worthwhile, so we cast them away.

Our most precious possessions often link us to people who matter, and there is no shame in valuing them. Perhaps if we can refocus on those things that are truly irreplaceable, we can fully recognize that people are inherently irreplaceable, as well.

Contributing columnist Aleta Payne is executive director of the Johnson Service Corps, the mother of three young adult sons and lives in Cary.