The other night, my dog Georgia wouldn’t stop throwing up. 

Georgia, also known as Beans, and more recently known as Bad Luck Beans, has suffered a string of health issues so unfortunate that most vets shake their heads in pity as they work their way down her chart. 

Here’s the short version, if you can believe it: First, she was diagnosed with EPI, a pancreatic disease that makes her unable to digest food without the aid of a medication which subjects us to such ruthless price gouging I’m convinced Martin Shkreli’s pulling strings from Allenwood prison. It’s a common issue in German Shepherds, but the first vets we saw were puzzled by her rapid weight loss and weak digestion. So she bounced around until someone figured it out. At one of our final appointments, this intrepid animal doctor introduced a new question: “Wait, what’s this bump on her head?” It was a bone tumor. We surgically removed it, but after a few months it returned, which had us in and out of radiologists’ offices for CT scans and estimates upwards of $10,000 for treatment. One of those scans showed it had spread to her lungs. This is the ‘principal’ issue; that is, the one that will ultimately take her out of life’s big game of fetch for good.

So, yeah: Bad Luck Beans. She earned it!

In the meantime, we treat the symptoms. Which brings me to the other night, when it seemed her body was rejecting the pain medication she’d been on for a few weeks. The lengthy warning label listed a range of side effects with identical symptoms. Is it an upset tummy or total kidney failure? Either way, she expelled enough from her body onto every carpeted surface in our home (how do they always skillfully avoid the hardwood?) that at 11:45 on a Sunday night, I made the call to take her to an emergency vet. 

Once we got into the examination room, there were more tests (no kidney failure; apparently, her bloodwork was “beautiful”), and she barked at the techs until 2 AM for good measure. While I waited, I laid down on the bench in the fluorescent room, and silently congratulated myself for being such a vigilant and self-sacrificial pup parent. A $660 fluid infusion and anti-nausea injection later (a relatively low bill in the grand scheme of her 18-month medical bender!), we returned home, both slumping into our respective beds.

When I woke up the next morning around 9, I was basking in the gentle glow of that distinct brand of self-righteous martyrdom I imagine all pet parents (and maybe actual parents?) feel when they do right by the creature who depends on them despite it being inconvenient and expensive. “I’m a good dog mom,” I said aloud, to no one, as I prepped her morning medication and homemade cancer-diet food. “Yeah…I put her before myself.” 

Then I froze, syringe suspended over the solution, realizing the obvious:

It was mid-morning on a Monday and I was standing in my kitchen in my pajamas, without consequence, making a new plan for how my day would unfold without threat of job loss (or even a compelling explanation). I hadn’t split hairs over the $660 charge, in part because my AmEx has already been anesthetized by several four-figure vet bills, but also because we can afford it. I was patting myself on the back for a sacrifice that amounted to little more than canceling a few morning meetings and losing a few hours of sleep at a vet’s office. 

The recognition of glaring privilege flooded in: You work a white collar job from home with hours you control, so staying up late was no big deal. You have enough disposable income that you were unburdened by the cost when making the best call for her. 

I know this may sound like self-flagellation (there’s that USDA Choice Catholic guilt again), but I realized I was making the crucial mistake I see people make all the time when judging the merit of their personal financial choices.

I was attributing my behavior to righteousness, not circumstance. On the flip side, someone with a lack of time and resources might attribute choices to moral failing, rather than choosing their best bad option. 

When the hustle glorification bots tout how disciplined they are for waking up at 5 AM and hitting the gym for two hours before work, the unspoken enabling circumstance is that they don’t work an hourly wage job with just-in-time scheduling that makes planning around their own best intentions very difficult. The subtext is that this person probably got a full night’s sleep, isn’t worrying about where their next meal is going to come from, and has the means to relax when they’re done to refuel for another long day of pressing buttons and sitting on Zoom calls. 

We all experience ebbs and flows of money and ease in life, but when we judge our actions against a benchmark set by someone with a lot more money, time, or access than we have, we’re mistaking the entirety of their ease for virtue (and judging our circumstantial limits as character flaws). 

Of course, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t feel proud of the good decisions we make or mentally reward them. It’s important to have a strong sense of self; of our moral code. It’s entirely possible to be a shitty rich person (see also: Martin Shkreli). We just can’t launder meaning through a moral framework that ignores context. A universe wherein I’m a low-wage worker living paycheck to paycheck with a 5 AM shift on Monday morning who opts not to go to the vet would not render me a worse dog parent to Bad Luck Beans—it would just make me someone with fewer good options. 

What we regularly chalk up to work ethic or virtue is often primarily afforded by circumstances that make it possible to work hard or be virtuous. We assume people’s personalities and behaviors are fixed; applied flatly to the world around them regardless of the conditions they find themselves in. If you need further evidence that’s not true, go hang out at an airport in the middle of the night during bad weather and watch adult meltdown after meltdown. 

As I stood there in the kitchen, a line from Matthew Desmond’s new book came to mind: “Poverty can cause anyone to make decisions that look ill-advised,” he writes, “and even downright stupid to those of us unbothered by scarcity.” [Emphasis mine.] 

Conversely, wealth and free time can enable anyone to make decisions that make them feel more virtuous or honorable. Sometimes what we attribute to good character is just money.

…but I’m a good dog mom. That’s something I’ll stand by.

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