“So one of my colleagues is a single woman,” I said over lunch to my friend, “in her sixties I think. She was telling us that she didn’t contribute to the population problem and shouldn’t have to support those that did. By taxes, I’d suppose, or maybe by accommodations businesses make for families.”
“Shortsighted,” he said. “She benefits by having an educated workforce like everyone else.”
“I guess I was thinking more about this because of something this past week. We visit a smallish church Wednesday nights. They called us Wednesday to say to say, Sorry, but we’ve talked about it, and we’ve decided that for your children to be at our service is not going to be OK. One woman had already said she’s not coming back because of it’s too hard to concentrate when they’re in the room.
“It was the first we knew anybody had a problem! Naturally I wonder what we did wrong. I mean, we bring quiet toys, and take ’em out if they cry, and shush ’em if they want to talk. But they are small, and it’s not perfect.
“Now, when I was single, I didn’t begrudge the presence of children unless they were screaming in my ear or kicking my seat. I don’t think I’m just arguing that people should tolerate children because I have them, arguing for what benefits me personally, like the woman I was telling you about — the first one, I mean. I never thought I was a freeloader, taxing people’s patience with child noise. Although I do sometimes think I should tip the busboy, instead of just the waitress, when I see what a mess the kids make when we go out!”
“The way I see it,” he said, “you go out in public, there are going to be people. Some will be children. If you can’t live with it, best stay home.”
We took the check to the register and paid. On the way out, I added,
“The reason we go to a different church Wednesdays is that it’s small and intimate, and I really like singing. But it’s also that we can’t do much at our own church beyond mass itself, because somebody has to stay home with the boys. We do have nursery again for mass — all the volunteers quit for various reasons, but it’s back now — but before we had children, my wife used to be on liturgy committee, and help with hospitality and this and that charity function, and we can’t do that these days without hiring a baby-sitter. We had a couple of ministries that were more family-friendly — started one of them — but they closed for lack of interest. To be sure, she is at the church right now wrapping presents for the charity drive this morning, but the reason she can do that is that this is a preschool day for the youngest, and of course the big guy’s in school too.”
He laughed at me as we got in the car. “So she’s been on all these committees, and you used to run the nursery, and now she’s taking her free morning to do charity work. And you’re worried about being freeloaders?”
“It’s a good thing to be worried about, isn’t it?”
As we drove back, he said, “I think part of community is that sometimes you’re giving more and sometimes you’re taking more. It depends on where you are in life. We all start as babies, and they don’t do anything but take. And surely –” said my atheist friend “– the most important part of a church is being a community.”
“There’s all that God stuff too, you know,” I said.
“Oh, right. Anyway: you do a public service by raising the next generation of workers and taxpayers. If you’re in a community, you give at some times and take at others. It’s not about payment.”
“I suppose,” I said.
We got back to my workplace, and I said, “I’ll go by my car. I’ve got some books to carry in . . . we’ve got a free book exchange, and I have several to give away.”
“You freeloader you,” he said.
And then thought the better of it: I’d take the books to a used bookstore, where I could get some cash for them.
And then decided it was too much trouble, and donated them anyway.
Life is messy. I can’t peg myself as a freeloader or as a generous man. Sometimes I can’t even pair up my socks.