What I’ve learned from Angelina Jolie
My wife, who has a history of breast cancer in her family, and I have been following the story of Angelina Jolie and her pre-emptive double mastectomy surgery with interest. This decision, made because she has the “breast cancer gene” that indicates high likelihood of cancer, has been rightly hailed as courageous. Jolie’s career hinges on her glamorous image and that she is willing to do this shows a courage to attack head-on the lingering cultural belief that a woman who has gone through such surgery is somehow lessened.
Reaction to Jolie’s decision has been uniformly positive and I am glad that this is so. Jolie is cited, correctly, as a role model and she is – to a point. I applaud her decision and wish her well but there is one lingering issue that is in my mind that I’ve yet to see brought up in any news report that I’ve seen. It doesn’t reflect on what she has done but on the reality of our society.
Over and over I’ve heard that what she has done can give other women courage to take the same step with less fear and I agree that it can be. The problem is that many women simply may not have the option to do the same thing. I’m told that genetic testing to find out if the gene is present costs several thousand dollars. If you are poor, with no health care, it is simply beyond your means to even take the test.
If somehow you can get the funds to do the test, and it is positive, then the cost of the surgery is prohibitive. Even if you have insurance they are quite likely to decide that preventative surgery is elective and not cover it, opting instead to encourage regular screenings, which most plans already cover. So the net effect is that, no matter how good a role model Jolie is, many or even most women cannot easily follow her. Even if they somehow can, Jolie’s complex and costly reconstructive surgery may not be covered so very few women would be left with the “as if nothing ever happened” look Jolie will have.
None of this diminishes Jolie’s actions but it does point to another issue – it sucks to be poor. This is just one of the many good, one might almost say urgent, life options that are simply not available to the poor. It is telling that none of the news reports I saw picked up on this angle.
So often the problems of the poor are simply invisible. I was not surprised that, during the news flap over the sequester, there was immediate congressional reaction to make sure a shortage air traffic controllers would not hinder travelers. There was no equivalent call for emergency reactions to cuts in the food stamp program, Head Start, or the school lunch programs. Why? Is it because the recipients of these programs are the invisible poor?
Jesus did tell us that “the poor you will always have with you” but I’m pretty sure His goal was not to imply “so you can safely ignore them.” But we need to remind ourselves that they are often close to invisible. I am pleased that, more and more, evangelical churches show a growing awareness of poverty issues and willingness to help.
Poverty issues are so massive that it is easy to feel helpless to solve the overwhelming need. When we lived in Sri Lanka we were almost driven to tears by the crushing poverty all around us. If we “sold all that we owned and gave it to the poor” it would not make a ripple in the flood of misery around us. In the end, we had to decide to simply do what we can; to aid just one or two as best we could.
Actually, while I admire Jolie’s courage in this decision, I admire even more that she has chosen a similar course on the issues of poverty. Even with all her wealth she is in the same position we were in Sri Lanka; she could give everything and barely make a dent. But she has done what she could in issues of poverty.
For Christians I think the response to poverty starts with prayer. We should pray first that God will give us eyes to see the issues the poor face and the wisdom to respond with an open heart.