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There is a lively sport, wherein people sit around and decide how someone else should have spent his money. I’ve seen it kick in at both ends of the spectrum: when the spender was poor and being unpractical, and when the spender was rich and flinging gobs of money at something that the backseat spenders considered frivolous. For that matter, I’ve seen it done amongst asset-equals. But the broadest participation seems, to me, to involve people looking with exasperated or sneering disapproval at those who have a great deal more money than themselves.

It’s a delightful sport in some respects, and I’ll admit to having indulged in it myself from time to time, especially when I was younger, more idealistic, and leaned more toward the postmodern Left. But perhaps that is beside the point, since participants seem to range from rich to poor, from Left to Right, and from atheist to priest.

I’ll not say it doesn’t have its upsides, this second-guessing.  Some uses of money are immoral, certainly, and it seems to me that we ought to speak out against spending that causes actual harm. (I’m sure you can come up with a few examples. I’ll save mine for another day, to prevent too much of a detour just here.)

But I’d like to suggest that, for the sake of civility, sanity, and integrity, in most cases we’d be further ahead to spend all that energy and intellect contemplating what we’d do if we had that much money instead of acting like we’re little dictators who have been defied when someone else doesn’t have the same priorities we do.

This is not to mention that so often (nearly always, I’d say), when we’re backseat driving in the spending lane we’re making our sweeping judgements with just scraps of information to build on. (Oh, goodness. How’s that for mixing metaphors!? And slaughtering grammar? Is there some sort of award for Worst Sentence of the Day?…)

In other words, (to come back on topic) you can’t know, really, what another person must take into consideration, or chooses to take into consideration, at any rate. Or, maybe you can, but I sure can’t. News has a way of being both superficial and selective, just like gossip. (Another discussion for another day, I see…) And then there’s that little matter of not being able to see into someone else’s heart.

This brings me to the post that prompted this post. Over here (via here) I came across statements about the horse Barbaro, and the gist seems to be that it was inexcusable, even shameful, to have spent so much money on a horse when that money could have gone to providing medical care to poor people instead.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. I knew some people would feel that way. But the vehemence of these people set me back a little, and it also made me a bit angry. It’s not your money. It wasn’t your horse. It’s not your heart. Your soul wasn’t at stake, nor your reputation, nor…

Oops. Vehemence for vehemence probably isn’t a great idea?

But my starting point is that the owners of Barbaro weren’t faced with a trade-off between helping poor people and fighting for their horse’s life. If they’d had to choose between helping a person and trying to save a badly injured horse, and they’d chosen the horse, then I’d agree with the teeth-gnashers. By all means, let us not confuse beasts with humans, even a grand and noble and intelligent and big-hearted, personable beast like a remarkable horse. I am an animal lover, and I’ve had pets and I’ve had horses, and I’d have gone to great lengths to protect them, but kick me out of the human race if ever I forget the sanctity of human life or become blind to the suffering of the poor or despairing amongst us.

But that wasn’t the issue here. These folks were thrown in an instant into a nightmare, and in the middle of it they refused to bow to the prevailing attitude in their industry, which expects a horse to be put down as soon as it loses its utility and/or its profitability. Good for Barbaro’s owners. Choosing on the side of life, even animal life, especially when it’s a personal sacrifice to do so, I think is a good, a noble, an inspiring stance. And, oh, what a sacrifice they made, without complaint, for the sake of an animal that was entirely at their mercy.

I think it’s unfair, and also unsupportable, to say that they only did it so they could use him later to make money. Being able to recoup their investment was always a long shot. This was a matter of principle, or love, or refusal to quit, or some combination thereof. From a money standpoint, it made no sense at all.

Ah, and that’s the other thing. Why do so many backseat spenders act like spending money somehow destroys it?

No, no, wait a minute. Think about it. To complain that money spent at a vet center cannot help the poor is to assume that the money somehow gets trapped in the vet hospital, instead of swirling out again into the world. Money changes hands. Sometimes the person who got paid hoards it away, sometimes he flies with it, sometimes (most of the time, most likely) he just uses it to keep a roof over his head and food on the table or keep the business he’s in afloat, to provide jobs and services another day.

Who’s to say that the people who have it now won’t spend it wisely, or that some of them won’t go out and help the poor with it? It’s not a sure thing, surely. But that money is out of the bank now. Redistributed, if you will… In the short term, it’s provided jobs, and promoted research, some of which will probably improve human medicine down the road, and it’s helped pay overhead that has to be paid one way or another. I wouldn’t be willing to bet how much or how little good will result of the type the ‘oh-my-God-they-wasted-money-on-a-horse’ people want, but to act like all that money somehow got sucked into the horse, and the horse is some sort of black hole which never will let it out again, well…

All of which is rather beside the point. It wasn’t your money. It wasn’t your responsibility.

By all means, if you disagree with how the money was spent, sit down with your most responsible and thoughtful, most discerning, grown-up friends and hash out how and why you think you would have done it differently if you’d been in their shoes; and after you have your priorities nicely lined up sit down with your kid and tell him why and how you hope/expect him to do better if ever he finds himself in a similar situation. Use it as a teaching moment. Bad examples are good teachers, after all.

But, please, if you could take it easy on trashing the people who fought to save Barbaro I’d appreciate it. Because, you see, through all this I’ve seen quite a few kids – and adults – find inspiration. I have no doubt, none, that lots of parents have pointed to Barbaro’s owners and said, see, that’s what selflessness looks like, and selflessness is a good thing. I have no doubt, none whatsoever, that the horse himself, by refusing to lay down and die, transmitted the ideas of perseverance and grit into some heads that hadn’t met those concepts before in a way they could understand it, much less admire it. For crying out loud, we were treated to heart. In a world gone mad with finding the easy way out and in a popular culture that celebrates people who say me-first!, where on any given day you could walk down the street and find people who think even marriages are only ‘binding’ as long as they don’t actually require any commitment, bother or unhappiness; in such a world when a situation comes along that showcases sacrifice, hope, faith, and loyalty we have to have religious people publicly denouncing it because they can, from a safe distance, think of something they’ve decided might have been better?

Let’s say I’m disappointed. Because I am. Have you never heard of the saying The perfect is the enemy of the good? It fits here. Sure, it would be nice to help poor people, too. No, that’s not putting it right. Sure, we are obliged to help poor people. As children of God we are expected and enabled to spread mercy and hope and feed the starving and share material comfort as well as spread messages and offer moral support. But there’s nothing to say we can’t help one horse and people. It’s hardly an either/or situation.

Maybe that’s why I’m upset, really. I believe, strongly, that most people come to God through seeing God in someone else. Not through sermons, not even through examples, per se, but through actually seeing holiness or approximate holiness (if I can put it that way). And I suspect, strongly, that there are a few people who see selflessness and selfishness, loyalty, courage, and duty in a new light, thanks to the people who didn’t give up on Barbaro when lesser people might have. Is that such a bad thing?

Is standing beside a fallen friend – even a four-legged one – instead of walking away such a bad example?

What strikes me as funny/sad about all this is that those posts were by Catholic bloggers.

Why is that funny/sad? you might ask. (Besides the fact that you might expect that they, if anyone, should appreciate people who chose to bear their own heavy and heartbreaking crosses without complaint.)

I’ll tell you. As it happens, the number one complaint I’ve heard from people who don’t like the Catholic Church is… drum roll, please… How it spends its money.

No, really. I’ve heard other rants, of course, some founded and some not, some theological and most worldy, but if you take all the years of my life rolled together the number one sneer I’ve heard is that Catholics waste money by pouring it into buildings, and art, and vestments, trappings and ceremony, instead of spending it directly on the poor.

Some days, you just can’t win for losing.

P.S. Note to self: It would probably be a good idea to take the time to read the comments on someone else’s post before you write a response to the post. It could save you some trouble, or at least help you hone your message. (Or feel less out on a limb, at any rate.)