How Dare You Ask for my Compassion?

prodigal“The value of compassion cannot be over-emphasized. Anyone can criticize. It takes a true believer to be compassionate. No greater burden can be borne by an individual than to know no one cares or understands.”- Arthur H. Stainback, Baptist minister and author

My heart hurts when I read comments on just about any story related to people and their financial troubles. Invariably, someone or a lot of someones will attack the author for the “excuses” they make for the poor.  They will go through the story of the person’s life looking for the reasons the subject’s difficulties are his own fault.  They will express them in the most aggressive terms and call the person who is having a hard time lazy, a mooch, incompetent, selfish. The comments are full of distancing language designed to make the subject into an “other,” a bit non-human. There is an undercurrent of anger directed at the writer for the outrage of making readers aware of the struggling person.  I often encounter comments that criticize the subject’s attention-seeking. Having to know about them sticks in some people’s craw. Fame is a prize that the lazy taker should not receive.

The underlying premise of such comments is always that you do not deserve my empathy unless you have earned it by proving that you are above reproach, you have made no mistakes, you live a lifestyle I approve of.  Not only do the people who post these kinds of attacks want you to know that they do not have sympathy for the poor person’s problems, they are offended by the very idea that they ought to have sympathy. They want the author to feel ashamed for suggesting readers care about the person in financial difficulty.

“You’re very good at making excuses for your miserable life,” one commenter said.  That one stuck with me.

What I have found from reading any number of articles is that what constitutes an “excuse” for a person’s “miserable life” is an extremely broad category.  People who are on welfare or receiving food stamps, of course, get no love.  They are assumed to be lazy and to have “poverty consciousness” and to want our handouts.  (We are the givers, of course, never the recipients of aid. They are never the tax payers, although the poor do pay taxes.)

So if the problem is that people on welfare are lazy and unwilling to work you would assume that working full time would earn our respect and make a person worthy of compassi0n.  Yet people who work a full time job that does not pay a living wage tend to get shouted down too.  Who told them to work that kind of job? They should go to school and get a real job.

So we might be able to assume that a person who pursues higher education has earned empathy. Yet when I read about a woman with a PhD who was having trouble making ends meet, the comments were every bit as critical and angry.  She studied the wrong subject.  Anthropology? Liberal Arts?  You are not entitled to sympathy if you study a fluffy field like that. In fact, the fact that she got a PhD instead of a “real job” offended some people.

Of course, we can’t all be bankers. What a weird world that would be. We’d spend all of our lives lending money to one another and not making anything with it.  So what is a “real job”– one that entitles its holder to empathy?  It is certainly not a job in arts, that goes without saying. Teachers tend not to fare well, they are union takers who get weekends and summers off.  Service jobs, as we already have shown, do not qualify. Academia is too elite to be a “real job.” If you go into social services, you should be doing it for love and you should not complain that you get no money. Factory labor killed the auto companies, of course.  They are self-centered and don’t care about the big picture. So “real jobs” seem to be a small subset of the available jobs out there.

Maybe the problem is that these people are in the prime of their lives and when you’re in your prime, you have no excuse not to put your nose to the grindstone and keep your mouth shut. So what about a child who is poor through no fault of his own? Surely he deserves our compassion? I read a story of a boy who was denied his school lunch and sent to class hungry because he did not have 30c on his card to pay for it. The comments on that story were just as angry. It was the mother’s fault for not having the funds or not being on top of things enough to replenish his lunch card. He should go hungry. He did not deserve compassion because, it seems, he had chosen the wrong parents.

One story I read featured an 85 year old professor who was still working part time but not making enough money to eat regularly. I am paraphrasing this story from memory.  She died and her poverty became the subject of a number of articles. You might think that being 85 years old and still working would shield her against charges of being lazy and selfish. It did not. There were people who expressed outrage that anyone would take up her cause.  It was her fault she was in her situation. She had only worked part time when she was younger and wasn’t entitled to more social security. If she had wanted to retire and not be in poverty, she should have worked harder when she was younger. I don’t know what this woman’s situation was, but she may have been a parent and decided that she worked part time to devote more of her time to raising her children.

Of course, in the blogosphere, having children is never an excuse for not working more hours in a real job. “You decided to have those kids, if you can’t afford them you shouldn’t have had them.”  (What a person is supposed to do when she already has children and her financial situation changes for the worse is unclear. Give them back?)  Single mothers are not entitled to compassion because they should have foreseen their divorces.

So I think back to this comment, “You’re very good at making excuses, aren’t you?” I realize that it is the person who wrote that who was making excuses– excuses not to care, excuses to walk on by.  “You’re very good at making excuses to justify your lack of empathy, aren’t you?”

The Dalai Lama said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

That should be the minimum human guide.

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4 comments

  1. Great post! I love how you broke down all this chorus of anger against the poor. It is bothersome to see the same tired excuses about takers, “real jobs,” different college degrees or life choices, and on and on. I don’t know who all these people are with such perfect lives that they have no need for empathy, but karma will reach their unloving hearts in the end.

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