Wednesday, March 16, 2016

When Lack of Life Experience = A Lack of Compassion

I did it again. I responded to a friend of a friend on Facebook. I engaged in political discourse that is likely to go nowhere. But this time, it stuck with me.

A little background. This friend of mine on Facebook is one of my most reasonable and intelligent Facebook friends. Yes, he's also a Republican. And yes, we differ in political opinions quite a bit. But I always enjoy his comments on Facebook and often find myself seeking to understand his viewpoint because I respect him so much as a person. I know him to be kind, generous, and forward thinking. So, when we disagree, instead of saying, "He's so wrong! What an idiot!" I instead find myself wanting to better understand why he thinks what he thinks. Now, this friend, being reasonable, will often state his strong opinions but rarely engages in discussion or argument (he says such discussions are for the dinner table...I'm still waiting for our dinner date). I think he knows his blood pressure is better off because of this rule he has set for himself. But while this friend of mine is reasonable, his friends are not. And I often find my own blood boiling at the comments some of them make. There was one today, regarding a flat tax that I could not let stand. So, I responded, and an argument ensued. You can see it below through screen shots. I removed the name and profile pictures so as not to violate anyone's privacy:

(Apologies for the language...I was fired up!)

So, yes, I get it. After engaging in this long discourse with people I've never met and likely never will, I look like one of the "unreasonable friends" I spoke of above. But bare with me.

As I said, this discussion really stuck with me. I have never met either of these people. I know nothing about them, but, I have to assume that they have had very few (if any) real life encounters with hard working poor people. People who have made the best choices they can in life, given their life circumstances, and who still struggle to make enough money to support their families. And if they truly have never met and had the opportunity to truly get to know people who fall into this category then I get where they're coming from.

My world view was drastically different before I started my graduate degree in Social Work. During my training I had two of the most socially transformative experiences of my life.

First, I interned at a homeless shelter for families. In my role here I met weekly with mothers and fathers who were doing the best they could to provide for their children. These parents were employed. They weren't just sitting on the sidelines looking for a handout. Employment (or well documented disability) was a requirement of this particular program. These were hard-working, committed, and desperate parents. They wanted to do the best they could for their children but life had given them few choices and few opportunities, and so this is where they were. Many of them came from drug addicted parents. Some of them grew up in violent areas where leaving the house every day to get to school was putting one's life at risk, and thus they didn't finish school. Being desperate for money to provide for their families some (but not all by any means) had engaged in illegal activity--theft, prostitution, the sale of drugs-- and had convictions on their record that further limited the choices they now had. I was young, about 23 when I first had the privilege of meeting these brave, inspiring fellow humans. And because of my interactions with them, my world view changed dramatically.

Then, in my second year of internship I interned at Boston Children's Hospital in what was called the Advanced Fetal Care Center. Here I met with women who were pregnant and their partners. Each woman I met with was carrying a baby who had a life threatening abnormality or disease. I sat with mothers and fathers as they learned the most devastating news about their children. I sat with them as they agonized about the decisions they faced: 1) to continue with the pregnancy hoping the child survived to birth and hoping for a few minutes with their baby before he or she died, 2) to continue with the pregnancy with the plan to intervene in any way possible, hoping to save their child and give them a longer life, or 3) to terminate the pregnancy. None of these parents took these decisions lightly. All of the children they were carrying were wanted. But yes, for a host of reasons, all valid reasons, some of them chose to terminate the pregnancy. These brave women taught me that abortion is many things, but most of all it is a private, personal decision, and not one that our government should be involved in making.

Yes, as I said, I get it. I get how you can be so very certain of "the way things should be" until you are faced head on with the people behind the opposing viewpoint. I am one of the lucky ones. I have had these experiences I described above, and so many more in my career as a Social Worker that have brought humanity at its best and at its worst into focus for me and as a result my world view has changed for the better.

So, what do we do? How do we help the people of our Country to have more experiences with more people, who will help them to better understand that the world is not such a black and white place? I know high schools are trying to do it by requiring a service component to graduation, but clearly its not enough. Many colleges have wonderful social justice curriculum and volunteer opportunities, and yet, these efforts miss all those who never go to college. It must start younger, and it must include parents.

We must find a way to include children and parents together in encounters with people who live differently than they do. We must foster discussion, at an early age, about social injustice. I'm not particularly religious, but I know and understand the valuable role that churches can play in this effort and we must challenge church leadership to truly embrace the spirit of Jesus and show care and concern for the least of our people. Our churches must get more people involved in service and must engage their congregations not just in service of others, but more importantly, interactions with others. I fear as a society that we will not change for the better until the majority of our citizens have an opportunity to interact with a wide variety of people from different classes, races, ethnicities, and cultures. We are a Country of many. We must step outside our own little bubble and get to know the many as best as we can. Then, and only then, will we be able to develop a truly compassionate, caring majority who seeks, as I've written about before, to do the most good, for the most people.

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