Of the possibilities for personal transformation Thomas Merton writes,

In order to gain possession of ourselves we need some confidence, some hope of victory. And in order to keep that hope alive we must usually have some taste of victory. We must know what victory is and like it better than defeat.

I am not the person I should have been. I grew up poor in Windsor, Ontario and lived in run down neighbourhoods where petty crime and vandalism were part of everyday life.

And victory? Victory was the stuff of fairy tales.

All of this to say that my parent’s socio-economic status predicted not much more than a lifelong struggle with poverty.

But that poverty didn’t happen because Canadians wove together a social safety net. Over a period of about 25 years I landed in that net three times and those soft landings changed everything. Faceless policies and caring institutions deftly anticipated my situation.

I am two years old. I severely cut my hand in a household accident. I am taken to the hospital immediately where I receive treatment. Yet, the medical encounter continues for another three years. Here are the highlights:

  • Infection
  • Infection management
  • Failure of infection management
  • Discussion of options, Amputation?
  • Medical curiosity
  • Medical advocacy
  • Medical intervention
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitalization
  • Rehabilitation
  • Medical success!

As interesting – miraculous even – as the clinical outcome, is the fact that between 1959 and 1962 my family bore no financial burden for the prods, pokes, and procedures, the beds I occupied, the rehab therapies, nor the numerous follow-up appointments with our family physician. Why?

Because in 1955 labour unions, the municipality, its hospitals and local docs  created Windsor Medical – an affordable monthly fee that made access to quality health services available for all.

I am 12 years old and “rough” is a word that describes near everything in our one-size-fits-all world. The family next door is “rough” with their children, the place down the road is in “rough” shape, and the school I attend is dominated by “roughians,” gangs of boys rumoured to carry knives and possessed of nasty temperaments. This word becomes a call to action. My parents say that we’ve got to go somewhere better.

Where? How?

My mother discovers a special provision in returning veteran’s legislation that provides  no interest loans for former soldiers saddled with various disorders and diseases. Here the combination of vague language, an exemplary civil service, and a highly motivated maternal presence, converge in the purchase of a modest home. At just $52.00 per month the house is ours, forever.

High school was a bust for me. I attended grades 9 through 13 though paid little attention. I smoked a lot of dope, skipped plenty of classes and after five years I was ushered to the door without certificate of graduation. Factories and shift work came next, some travel, more shift work. Then in my early 20s I awoke to a grim fact. My recent past foresaw an identical future.

Ontario post-secondary education policy was there for me to land in. It allowed me to enrol in a remedial community college program where patient – and I’m certain poorly paid – adult educators helped me with the fundamentals. Then a mature student exemption built a bridge to higher learning.

Clutching these assets I enrolled in the university, completed graduate school and found my way into telecommunications and health technology consulting.

It’s been said that there are but three ways to affect change.
– You can let it happen.
– You can help it happen; and,
– You can make it happen.

As a citizen of Canada I feel lucky that civil servants and their political bosses helped me not hit the ground. Instead they gave me a taste victory and they showed me how much sweeter it is than defeat.