Systemic vs individual change

Today I read this article, seen on my Facebook news roll, posted by a couple of friends. It started out well, but once he started arguing against the problem he’d stated at the beginning of his post, my first reaction was to wonder why Mr. Kristof is trying to make his point about the need for compassion by trading on tired stereotypes. It has been shown over and over again that poverty is the biggest predictor of challenges in school, in work, and in life in general. Why add to his argument the image of, “a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you”? Single moms are demonized in our society, which creates a layer of stress that has real consequences in their lives and the lives of their children. In his very next sentence, Mr. Kristof says, ” One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.” So why point the finger at parenting, at the implied lack of love and responsibility that the kids he’s citing are suffering from? The real problem is poverty. It is our systemic lack of compassion, not just on the part of individuals for individuals, but a terrible lack of support, understanding, and valuation of the lives of those who are in need by our society and its institutions.

A person’s survival shouldn’t ride on the compassion of individual Americans, though of course that lack of fellow feeling is terribly important. But Mr. Kristol shows its inevitable limitations in his article when he chooses to highlight the consequences to poor innocent children who shouldn’t suffer as a result of their loser parents’ bad choices.

Compassion cannot be limited to people who have made choices that are adjudged not too bad by other people who have the money, power, and influence to determine what everyone else in society should receive. I do, of course, believe that children of people in trouble need to receive all the help they require to survive and have a chance to thrive. But people in trouble also deserve that help. Everyone deserves help. Everyone is human. Everyone deserves society’s resources. Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes horrific ones. And sometimes one is saved from gigantic consequences of one’s mistakes by pure luck. Maybe you made a bad driving decision, and you just missed a head-on collision by a fraction of an inch. Maybe you were so brain-fogged after months of no sleep that you almost forgot your infant in the car, but remembered when you were several yards away and went running back to your vehicle. Maybe, in the midst of an emotional storm of betrayal, anger, and grief, you wrote that email that could destroy relationships, tear apart families, but your email program had a glitch, and by the time you woke up shaking with fear and remorse the next morning you were incredibly relieved to see it still hanging out in your outbox, unsent. Maybe you got addicted to some sort of drug, and your need for it eclipsed everything else, but you happened into some sort of program that helped you out before you lost your job, your relationships, your children, your life.

I believe that this lack of compassion isn’t actually so new in our country, but I think it’s been significantly exacerbated by an economic picture in which the gap between have and have-nots has widened until that wealth disparity is greater than that found in Egypt. More and more people are feeling very significantly economically challenged, and are not responding to their fellow human beings with grace and openness. They are afraid. And they are lashing out.

We need support. We need single payer health care. We need jobs. We need a real social net that doesn’t depend on someone’s definition of who deserves help. We need to teach compassion as we model it. Lecturing others for their lack of compassion and blaming systemic problems on individual people doesn’t advance us very far or effectively to the stated desired goal.

We need to excise the idea of winners and losers from our calculation of what people deserve.

We need to require equal access to society’s systems for all people. If we were all valued, individual compassion would be an easier coin to come by and to spend.


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