The previous post was my best shot at how to be an Alpha—a person who, in the seemingly random distribution of resources, gets a card marked A. Today, let’s consider how to be a Beta person—someone who got a card marked B. It’s harder
This is how far we have gotten. There is a distribution of conditions, A and B; the distribution is random. The people who get the A cards and the people who get the B cards are not different from each other in any way prior to getting the cards. The people who get the A cards, and who come over time to think of themselves as “Alpha people,”—as good people, rather than as beneficiaries of a process that took no note at all of merit—are healthy, wealthy, and wise. The people who get the B cards and who—unless they get some help—will come to think of themselves as Beta people, are unhealthy, unwealthy, and unwise. (I hope you will forgive the inelegance of the terms; I am riding the stereotypes as hard as I can so no one will mistake them for descriptions.)
Since in the first essay, I called myself an Alpha, as carefully defined in the footnote, I can say quite easily “how Alphas should invest their resources.” There is no way I can say that about Betas. Trust me on that. I have tried for ten years or so and have failed. From here on out, when I say “I” and “we,” I am referring to myself and to others like me as the people who were dealt B cards.
Our first and most important job as Betas is to believe in the context—some people got A cards and some people got B cards. The most demanding task for the people who got the A cards is to keep themselves from drifting into thinking of themselves as “Alpha people;” the most demanding task for us is to keep from thinking of ourselves as “Beta people.” The community that binds the two sets of people together is based on the recognition that there is no particular merit in having been handed an A card; nor is there any lack of merit in having been handed a B card. It is a community of people who entered the room as colleagues, and who, if they know what they are doing, can leave the room as colleages.
Everything about our lives since that (fictional) moment will tell us that we “are” Alphas and Betas. Why? Well, people who are healthy, wealthy, and wise don’t live where people live who are unhealthy, unwealthy, and unwise. You know that as well as I do; we may be “unwise,” but we aren’t stupid. That means that what the Alphas strain to concede and remember, the Betas strain to claim and remember. The best of the Alphas, the ones most likely to have their A cards reissued after the next shuffle, know that the reason they were blessed with resources is so they could share them with us. Our job is to be sure we don’t knock that commitment out of their heads to the detriment of both sets of people.
How could we do that? How could we screw up so badly that we persuade the Alphas to think of themselves as superior?
We could do that by paying with gratitude for the gifts they offer in friendship. Our job in accepting their help is to continue to accept the community that we once shared. That community results in two simple maxims: they need to offer their resources because that is their part of the job; we need to accept those resources because that is our part of the job.
Remember that the Alpha task is just a little complicated. As long as they remember that nothing separates us but the card they were handed and the card we were handed, they will support us out of their riches and be glad for the chance to do it. When they fail to remember that, they will have to confront the fact (this “fact,” as all the facts in this story, is fictional) that how well they do their job of bringing resources to us is going to be evaluated. They do not want their A card to go to someone who will share more generously than they have.
It is so much better for them to share out of our common collegiality than to share as a strategy for keeping their A card status. It is also better for us, so we need to address seriously how we can achieve that goal. We will need to join them in appreciation for what their sharing has achieved. Using “healthy, wealthy, and wise” as our table of contents, we can help them understand fully how these people are healthier, those people are less impoverished, and those others less cognitively impaired than they would otherwise be. We can stand side by side with the Alphas and celebrate that achievement.
Our celebration as colleagues need not be impaired in the slightest by the fact that we ourselves are among those who have received this benefit. The collegiality implied by the original distribution of cards—they share only out of their surplus; we receive only out of our need—has been reaffirmed. Suffering of all sorts has been alleviated and we celebrate that with them.
All the alternatives to this way of giving and receiving resources are less good. If we Betas receive as if it were a compensation for our lack of merit, we teach them that they received an A card because of some merit. It is not good for us to teach them that and it is not good for them to learn it. They will come to see their own merit as the explanation for having received the A card and our lack of merit as the explanation for our receiving the resources that were given them to share.
Two effects will come from this: both bad.
The first is that they will come to see their sharing as an exercise in charity, as if it were particularly meritorious. They will see it as appropriate and sensible when things are going well in their lives and as inappropriate and onerous when things are not going well. Giving as “charity” will not spare them from the feeling that they really ought not be asked to do this. Immediately following that feeling will come the sense that we ought not to ask it.
The second is that they will come to see their sharing of resources—the resources that were given to them so that they could share them—as a way of safeguarding their own status when the cards are shuffled. The giving that was once necessary and fully implicit in the distribution of cards now becomes something they have to do to safeguard their own future. When they stop being “people who received the A card” and become “one of the Alpha people,” there is the danger that the sharing they do will become only a means to assure their own status. That way of grasping their lives will be both abrasive and toxic to them.
Both of these bad effects—seeing the sharing as “charity” and practicing it as a strategy for retaining their status—come from a common source: it is the failure of collegiality. When they see their giving and our receiving as the two stages of the one process, they are protected from both of these bad effects. They will try as best they can not to fall into “charity” and “status maintenance” as motives, but they will fail if we do not help them. They will continue to share as our colleagues if we continue to receive as their colleagues should. Nothing else will do that job.
That’s not always easy for us, but it is our piece of the work to be done. Our job is to receive the resources as colleagues, not as failures. When their intentions lapse and they drift into the “I am an Alpha person” mindset, they will offer their resources in the way a person who deserves to have resources (Alphas) offers them to a person who deserves to have too few resources (us). Even when the resources are offered in that way, we need to insist on receiving them as colleagues would. If we Betas agree to be distinguished as less deserving, we bind on the Alphas the burden of thinking of themselves as more deserving. The whole question of desert—of who deserves what and why—is the enemy of collegiality and collegiality is all that keeps us together in unity and mutual appreciation.
I know this has all been abstract and hypothetical. Perhaps a homely example will help. You are having dinner at a good restaurant on the first week in April. The waiter does a really good job of serving you; he is knowledgeable, interesting, and efficient. You recognize the unusually good performance with a substantial tip. The same waiter serves you in the first week in May. What will you have taught him about you and what will you have taught him about himself?
Let’s try that scene again. You are having dinner at a good restaurant on the first week of April. You make it plain to the waiter that if he provides good service, and not otherwise, there will be a substantial tip in it for him. He does a really good job of serving you; he is knowledgeable, interesting, and efficient and you give him the tip you promised to give him if (and only if) the service was good. What will you have taught him about you and what will you have taught him about himself?
In the first instance, you will have reinforced the waiter’s view of himself as a competent server and he will regard the tip as a recognition by you of the quality of his work. You will have presented yourselves as diners who are capable of recognizing good service, who expect it, and who reward it. You are appreciative customers. In the second instance, you will have taught the server to think of himself as someone who would not offer good service if it were not for the promise of the tip. The tip is the goal; you, the diners, are only a means to reaching the goal. You will have presented yourselves as diners who expect that they would have been served poorly had they not dangled additional compensation in front of the waiter. You are manipulative customers.
Those two dining experiences reflect, though in a glass, darkly, my argument about Alphas and Betas. The way my story plays out, it is the distribution of the cards that makes one a diner and the other a waiter. If we treat the A card holders as people who have to do what they are doing or risk losing the A card, we are teaching them to be coldly calculating—to treat us as a means to an end.. If, on the other hand, we servers treat the A card holders as colleagues—matching the high quality of our service with the high quality of their understanding and appreciation—then we teach them to think of themselves as colleagues, even when the conditions of their own lives make them vulnerable to erosive considerations of comparative merit.
It’s not easy to do our job well. We can learn to hunch our shoulders as if our need reflected any lack of merit. It’s not easy to do their job well either. They can learn to stoop down, if meritorious people were somehow being asked to share their resources with people who did not deserve them. But when we both do our jobs well, the context of our common life is affirmed. That means our essential collegiality is affirmed. And that means that the goal of supporting those who are not healthy, not wealthy, and not wise—which is the real goal of the people who are handing out the cards—is achieved.
 Last time, I passed over all of the buffering I ordinarily do, but considering holders of the B cards, the Beta people, is much more offensive so this might be the time to add it. Here are three things to consider. First, the notion of randomness doesn’t actually mean anything in a theological context. Randomness is a crucial statistical tool, but it doesn’t help us if Providence is one of the players. Second, privileged families have privileged children. It isn’t fair, but it is indisputable. Despite the commonsense presuppositions of the economists’ term, “distribution,” economists do not imagine that there is a Distributor. Finally, it is one thing to lecture the privileged on remembering to serve the less privileged; it is quite another thing to lecture the Betas on how to live their lives. I have eased that dilemma a little by positing that I am, myself, a Beta, and giving this lecture to myself in that capacity. I am, in fact, an Alpha: I am healthy, for an old man; I am wealthy, given my lethargic appetite for spending; and I am as wise as I am ever going to get.
 If you want to experience that yourself, there is an easy way to do it. Head a column “As an Alpha, I should…” and then another column as “As a Beta, you should…” In the second column, sentences will come to you that you will simply not be willing to write down.
 A cards never go to B people. The whole fantasy would collapse if I allowed that.What will you have taught him about you and what will you have taught him about himself?
 It’s commercial, I know, but it is homely.
 And, unless you really are knowledgeable diners, you will find yourselves paying only for a flamboyant servility and no professional service at all. Everyone can recognize servility; only a competent diner can recognize really good service. And—lest this example get out of hand—let me say that I am not, myself, a particularly competent diner, but servility really distresses me.