We’ve been thinking about the characteristics of responsible nations, and today I want to talk about the difference between can’t and won’t. Something happened to me last week that brought this to mind. I was driving on Road State 39, south of Danville, and a man pulled in behind me from a side road, driving a bright red sports car. State Road 39 is a narrow, somewhat curvy road, so he couldn’t pass me. I was in my 1999 Toyota Corolla with my Quaker bumper sticker that reads Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions. I glanced in my rear view mirror and noticed the man was beating on his steering wheel and yelling, presumably at me since there was no one else in his car. Apparently, my Quaker bumper sticker had little effect on him.
I knew the man. Had grown up with him, and knew he had an overblown sense of entitlement and privilege. I’m not sure how someone gets to be his age and still be that way, but I think it’s our duty, whenever possible, to teach others patience and tolerance, and this felt like “a teachable moment.” I glanced at my speedometer. I was going 51 MPH, which suddenly struck me as somewhat foolhardy, the speed limit being 50 MPH. It had also just rained, and I remembered from my driver’s education class in high school that you should deduct 10 MPH in inclement weather, especially on narrow, curvy roads, so I slowed down to 40 MPH. He pounded his steering wheel some more, then passed me on a double line, shouting something about my mother.
Now if he had pulled alongside me and asked me, “Can’t you go any faster?” I would have said, “Yes.”
But if he asked me, “Won’t you go any faster?” I would have said, “No.”
That’s the difference between can’t and won’t. Can’t means I am incapable of doing a certain thing. Won’t means I am unwilling to do a certain thing. I could have driven faster the other day, I was just unwilling to.
When we were last together, I spoke about how in responsible nations, those who can, help those who can’t. Those who can, help those who are incapable. But are we under any obligation to help those who are unwilling? How do we know when someone can’t do something and someone won’t do something. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Sometimes, I have helped people I thought were incapable, only to discover they were unwilling. They had led me to believe they were incapable, that they couldn’t, though I eventually discerned they were unwilling, that they wouldn’t. Then there have been times I have refused to help someone, thinking they were unwilling to help themselves, only to later learn they were incapable of helping themselves. Sometimes it isn’t easy to distinguish between can’t and won’t, but the effort must be made. The effort must be made because no nation can thrive that rewards apathy and sloth. No nation can thrive that asks and expects nothing from its citizens. No nation can thrive when entire classes and groups of its citizens are parasitic, when people, through the muscle and manipulation of law, extract wealth and means from the nation, but are unwilling to add to it.
Remember when you were in school and your science teacher teamed you up with 3 other students to do a project. Two of the kids did 75% of the work, one did his share, 25%, but nothing more, and the fourth, though able, did nothing at all, but still got the A. Remember that kid? Don’t be that kid.
Responsible nations help those who can’t, but hold accountable those who won’t. They do this because they realize the intrinsic value of work. Life is more meaningful and joyful when we contribute and care.
I met a young man this week at an assisted-living center I was visiting on the south-side of Indianapolis. This young man had grown up in a poor corner of southeast Ohio, and had recently graduated from Berea College, a college in Kentucky for kids from Appalachia who are the first people in their families to attend college. Every student at Berea receives a scholarship that pays all their tuition, and most of the students also receive free room and board. Berea was the first southern college to be both co-educational and interracial. But get this, in exchange for their education, every student must work at the college or in the community. So when you visit Berea, you see all these young people out working. There are 100 different jobs the students can choose from, all of them overseen by a Dean of Labor. I believe it’s the only college in America with a Dean of Labor.
So I was asking this young man if he liked working at an assisted-living center. He said, “I love it.” I asked him what he loved about it. He said, “I love serving people. I love making a difference.”
When I got home, I looked up on the Internet to see what generation he belonged to, whether he was a Millennial, or a Generation X, and discovered he belonged to what social scientists now refer to as Generation Z.
These are kids born between 1995 and 2005, my son Sam is a Generation Z, and here’s what social scientists have discovered about this age cohort—they want a feeling of fulfillment in their jobs and they seek jobs that help the world move forward. They’re eager to be involved in their communities and want to contribute. In other words, they have discovered the value of accomplishment and the joy of meaningful work. For the first time in a long time, I felt encouraged about our nation’s future.
When we expect some to contribute, but not others, we harm them and ourselves. Whether that person is a CEO making millions of dollars a year, while happily letting others pick up the tab when the bill comes due for roads, schools, and care for our seniors. Or whether that person is like a man I know in Danville who has chosen not to work in order to avoid supporting the children he has sired. Responsible nations help those who can’t, but hold accountable those who won’t.
This is why equal opportunity is so crucial. When we create systems, policies, and cultures that diminish the ability of some to contribute, whether because of their race, their gender, their religion, their age, or sexual orientation, we limit their opportunities to contribute, we simultaneously diminish their happiness and our nation’s well-being.
Responsible, healthy nations help those who can’t, while holding accountable those who won’t. They recognize the intrinsic value of work, and do all they can to make sure the avenues of success are open and accessible to all. In a responsible nation, the ditch-digger is every bit as important as the CEO, the Corolla driver as worthy as the sports car driver, women as essential as men, people of color as indispensable as white people, gay as valued as straight, rural as vital as urban.
In the Bible, when Adam and Eve fell out of grace, the story says they were cursed with work. Let me tell you, the guy who wrote that never knew the pride of a job well done. Work is not a curse. In proper balance, it is our collective effort to serve one another. It is the way we make a difference. That is why healthy nations help those who can’t, while holding accountable those who won’t.