Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Guardianship is not limited to family members
Hard Choices Again: Follow-up to "Hard Choices" (from Monday's column): My sister is my only sibling, parents are deceased, so she is, in effect, my only family other than my husband. My husband also asked me if I really would be willing to see the kids go to foster care, since we are the only stable relatives. He thinks that since the chances of both parents dying are slim, we should agree to be guardians, and if the unthinkable happens, we should take it on as best we can because the alternative would be dire.
Carolyn: I agree with your husband, but only if you do, and only if that's the choice — you or foster care. (In which case your sister gets a few big notches in the sympathy column.)
However, that choice doesn't ring true. Guardians don't have to be family. Raising kids puts you in regular, often daily contact with people who know kids, and who know your kids. I know people in whose homes I'd be honored — relieved? — to place my kids in the event of a catastrophe.
So, you get a fat insurance policy, you find someone who'd be just as honored to have your kids, you wear your seat belts and you trust.
I would take in unrelated kids in a second, if a friend asked me. I could even argue that guardians in your sister's area, who know her kids, would be less jarring for them.
Washington: I appreciate your general live-and-let-live approach, but I wonder if sometimes you are too willing to accept that because a person didn't deserve a bad situation, they aren't responsible for it. I can't help but feel the path of true moral excellence would be to accept the guardianship with enthusiasm and purpose, despite the fact it could (mess) up the life the writer wants to live.
In other words, the path of true moral excellence accepts that the life we want is not always the life we get to live. I wonder if you ever struggle with how soft to be on people who want "permission" to be acceptable instead of exceptional.
Carolyn: I have struggled with this. But I've actually come to a position that feels right to me, and from which I answer these questions: I believe the people who pass up chances at "moral excellence" are disappointing themselves more than anyone else.
I also don't think we have the right to punish others for their failure to be exceptional. We can and certainly should celebrate excellence when it happens, and ask it of ourselves even, but we can't expect it. The best we can expect is ordinary mortal frailty.
The sister herself illustrates that: Her anger shows she asked for excellence, when in fact she expected it; "no" wasn't an option she recognized. She's unforgiving, and so, by the standards you set, she's just as guilty of being morally unexceptional.
For people who do push themselves, there are payoffs not available to those who don't. Criminal law aside, I think this cosmic system of rewards and punishment gets it right more than our human one, when we take it upon ourselves to judge others.