David Cook: The mental illness of politics

David Cook: The mental illness of politics

August 31st, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Holy Bear Bryant, I had such a good idea for today's column.

I was going to compare politics, which has become as joyous as triple root canals, with college football season, which is like a birthday every Saturday.

I had some good lines: With college football, you get Hail Marys, SEC tailgating and ESPN Gameday.

In politics, you get Super PACs, Washington gridlock and the ever-thrilling George Will.

In college football, after scoring a touchdown, they go for two.

In politics, after scoring Bush One, we get Bush Two.

See? You were going to love it. I was walking into work, about to start writing.

Then the baby fell on her head.

Just outside on East 11th Street, a block from City Hall, a CARTA bus opened its doors and out poured a single mother and her three small children, crammed in a double-stroller with bags of diapers, a black Bible with crumbs between the pages, empty food wrappers and baby formula.

Her story tumbled out: No place to stay, no money, no life but a troubled one. As if life was proving her point, her stroller hit a bump and one of her children -- the 1-year-old girl -- fell out, head-first onto the concrete sidewalk.

It was more dramatic than life-threatening. There was no concussion, but the moment made me stop. Those football-politics jokes weren't funny anymore. (Yes, I hear you out there. They may not have been that funny in the first place).

"I'm tired of ... crying," the mother said.

On the national stage, we have political conventions, where folks in suits talk about making America better. Republicans speak about self-made men and bootstrap self-determination. Democrats will speak about government as an agent of help, where welfare and social programs are not dirty words.

Within this mother's story, it would seem both sides are ridiculously wrong. And right.

I made a call to Mary Ellen Galloway, an old friend and executive director of Family Promise, which used to be called Interfaith Homeless Network.

Family Promise connects homeless families and children with area congregations who serve as hosts, providing shelter, home-made meals and kindness. Family Promise then help families find permanent housing, employment and solid ground for their kids.

The mother washed into the Family Promise conference room like an accidental hurricane. At times, as if paralyzed, she would just stand there as her kids ran around. She had mac and cheese, but no forks or plates. Formula but can't find bottle nipples. Flotsam, jetsam.

The Family Promise intake coordinator - who last year saw more than 250 families and could have seen 250 more -- tried to reassemble the mother's life. Fruit and juice for the kids. A hotel room for the night under the condition she returns the next day to enter the Family Promise program.

But all the king's horses and all the king's men may not be able to put this woman back together again. Her files revealed she suffers from a mental illness and its frequent consequence: an unwillingness to accept help, or take medication, or make the right decisions.

"We can't make people take advantage [of our services]," said Galloway. "They have a right to self-determination."

That's the Republican word. Freedom, even if it means to refuse help.

"But this lady didn't wake up this morning deciding to have a mental illness," said Galloway.

There's the other side: generous empathy. A perspective that says individualism is an illusion.

What will it take for us - politically - to move past the mental illness where each side stubbornly refuses to see past its own agenda? How do we save this woman whose children fall out of her grasp?

"That could be any of us," said Galloway.