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The Backside of a Bull and a Garden Full of Rodents

I had an unexpected epiphany after spending time with a bronze bull and a garden full of rodents in the financial district of New York City last month.

The moment came at the end of a long weekend celebrating my daughter’s upcoming birthday. She, her best friend, her best friend’s mother and I packed a lot into 48 hours. By Sunday morning, when we were exploring Lower Manhattan, we had slowed considerably.

The city, on the other hand, wasn’t slowing down at all. People crowded narrow sidewalks under the watchful eyes of police officers on every corner. While the officers graciously responded to requests for photos with tourists, their ability to give good directions was questionable.

Despite their help, we were finally able to locate the Charging Bull on Wall Street. Since the bull had never been on my list of sites to see, I hadn’t expected the frenzy of people mobbing it for photos. Many were lined up behind the bull to touch its anatomically correct underside for good luck.

The eleven-foot-tall bronze sculpture is supposed to symbolize aggressive financial optimism and prosperity. Last year, when the Occupy Wall Street protests began, metal gates were set up around the bull to prevent it from harm. Now, the public can once again touch it, but judging by the police presence, there’s still concern about the safety of the more than 7,000 pound bull.

Personally, I think the concern about vandalism is a bit misplaced. I’m more worried about the almost worship-like reverence people demonstrate for an icon that represents an industry focused more on the value of money than the value of people.

Don’t get me wrong. I like money. I just think that, as a society, we’re too fixated on who has it and who doesn’t.

To me, the bull represents a culture rooted in money and the immense appeal that has. But when people go to great lengths to touch that lifestyle, they may miss seeing what’s really going on around them.

For example, just feet from the Charging Bull, there’s a garden full of rodents living off the crumbs of others. The mice live among the vivid red flowers in the circular garden around the fountain in Bowling Green Park where we ate our lunch.

What seemed like a quiet public garden was actually teaming with dozens, if not hundreds, of mice. When bits of bread, meat, tomatoes and even cucumbers dropped, they would scurry out from under the blossoms, grab their feast then rush back for cover.

Many of the people intent on enjoying the beautiful, late morning sunshine didn’t even notice the mice. Others were completely disgusted by them. No one wanted to touch them, and very few people wanted to feed them.

But my daughter and I were fascinated.

Although seemingly dependent on others for their livelihood, the mice certainly weren’t lazy. In fact, the were quite industrious. And even when vying for the same crumbs, they seemed to respect each other’s efforts.

That’s when I had my epiphany.

The mice represent all the low-income people who live and work right alongside those who are more financially secure and influential. They represent all those people on Wall Street who clean bathrooms and pick up trash instead of buying and selling stocks and bonds.

And even though they live in the shadow of a bull that people fondle for good luck, they also represent a great deal of dignity.

Not to Brag, But Apparently I’m a Really Stupid Failure

In the last few weeks, I’ve been told I’m a stupid failure.

That was news to me.

Up to this point, I always thought I was a fairly bright person and a contributing member of society.

According to some people, I was wrong.

I was wrong because none of my accomplishments have involved making significant amounts of money, and that is how some people define success.

It doesn’t matter that, during my entire academic career spanning high school through graduate school, the lowest grade I ever received was a B. (Just for the record, two of those three B’s occurred when I was an undergraduate less focused on academics and more focused on having fun.)

I’m apparently stupid because I think that caring for other people is more important than accumulating wealth.

It doesn’t matter that I had a professor in graduate school who told me I was the brightest student he’d ever taught.

I’m apparently stupid because I thought the American dream was built on the concepts of dignity and respect for all people — not just for those who share the same religious or political beliefs or for those who have large bank accounts.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve developed and implemented programs that help people who were struggling.

I’m apparently stupid because I didn’t realize those people didn’t deserve any help since it was their own fault that they couldn’t make ends meet.

And, on top of being stupid, I’m also apparently a failure because I have never had a big salary or retirement plan myself.

Not only have I never made a big salary, but I also respect other people who don’t make big salaries:  social workers, teachers and people who work for nonprofit organizations or small businesses that often can’t afford to offer health insurance or any other benefits. I also respect people who work hard in tough jobs that have poor pay and benefits, even when the company can afford to pay them but chooses to reward the CEOs instead.

These are the people trying to support their families but are hanging on by a thread.  These  are people who have diligently made their mortgage payments every month only to see the value of their homes drop well below what they owe because big business, not big government, was  jacking up the price of houses by giving loans to those who couldn’t afford them. These are the people who have seen their savings dwindle and their bills grow.

And then there are the people whom most of us take for granted.  The people who are almost invisible but who do the jobs someone has to do. The people who do work hard at often unpleasant  jobs with no respect. Apparently, I’m stupid for thinking we should appreciate people like the maids, the janitors, the nursing homes aids, etc. who don’t make much money and often receive no benefits.  I’m stupid for thinking we should take some responsibility for ensuring these individuals get their basic needs met.

And I’m apparently a stupid failure because I can recognize how so many politicians are more beholden to the big dollars that can finance their campaigns than they are to the people they serve.  As someone said to me this week, “Most politicians don’t like poor people.”  Of course they don’t. Poor people don’t have any connections or dollars to make large campaign contributions.  Neither do most middle-class Americans for that matter, but poor people make an especially easy target to vilify as being lazy and undeserving.

And because of my beliefs, my values and my career, I’m being called a stupid failure by those who think differently than I do.

Ironically, I’m wearing that label proudly.

After all, I’m pretty sure stupid failures with similar passion and beliefs are the people who make big changes in our world.  We are, after all, too stupid to know any better.