empathy

Thoughts on Colbert’s “Case Against Charity”

This wrap up of last night’s Colbert report will have to serve as a stand in for the clip I wanted to put here. The Case Against Charity segment, which you can find via the link. I am not savvy enough to figure out how to make Comedy Central clips embed on Word Press.

In the beginning of Colbert’s show last night, Stephen named his fellow nominees in his Grammy category and said he was especially looking forward to beating 94-year-old Pete Seeger.  I have met Pete Seeger twice and one of those meetings stuck with me. It was outside Carnegie Hall. Seeger had just wrapped up a concert with Arlo Guthrie and a group of fans had gathered outside the stage door in hopes of getting autographs. Seeger spotted a homeless man sitting on the pavement across the alley. He walked over to him.

“How are you tonight?” he asked.

The man said he was doing OK.

Seeger asked him if he’d had enough to eat and if he had a place to sleep. “I know some places you can go if you need a warm place to sleep,” he said.

The man thanked the musician and said he had somewhere to go. He seemed pleased though that someone had taken an interest in him as a human being. They talked for a couple of minutes before Seeger went back to his fans and then on his way.

I still had this memory in mind when Colbert aired his Case Against Charity segment which featured John Stossel dressing up as a homeless man in order to show what a scam begging is.

Stossel says that “the people who work with the homeless” agree with him. He doesn’t actually quote any specific person or agency. He also implies that all homeless people are addicts without offering any actual studies to back this up and says that most of the people who beg for money are “fakers.” Again, he doesn’t have any source for his “most” figure nor explain what he means by “faker.” Not really homeless? Not really poor? How poor?

In any case “the people who work with the homless” according to Stossel say that you should not give a beggar money but “help the person get to one of the social service agencies.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if that is, in fact, what John Stossel does when he sees a homeless person on the street. Does he stop and ask the person his story, ask him what he most needs and help him to find an agency that can meet that pressing need?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I have my suspicions.

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.

Imagining Jesus on Zoloft

There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal called Mental Illness and Leadership.  It advances the theory that in times of crisis the best leaders are those who suffer from depression.  It is another entry for the “creativity and madness” file, a topic that has been of interest since at least the era of Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Nassir Ghaemi, the author of the article, says that depression has been shown to encourage traits of both realism and empathy.

“Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.

Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is.

(A turn around on Don Quixote who saw the world not as it was, but as he thought it should be.)

…Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.

Ghaemi uses Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples of people who suffered from depression and whose strategies of nonviolent resistance were based on an assumption of empathy.  Ghaemi concludes:

India was fatally divided because Hindus and Muslims could not accept each other… The politics of radical empathy proved, in the end, to be beyond the capacity of the normal, mentally healthy public.

The observation left me questioning the author’s “sanity.”  That is, to say, I question his definition of the word.

It sounds as though mental health, in this context, is synonymous with conformity.  Is conforming to a social structure that is filled with prejudice rather than empathy really more “sane” than refusing to conform?

Having the positive illusion of greater control over ones environment could actually be a cause of a lack of empathy.  If you think you control your health through positive thinking, for example, you’re less likely to have empathy for the sick who, it follows, should be able to prevent their own illness.

The studies in the article, at least as they are explained by the author, seem to suggest that depression is the cause of greater empathy and realism.  But correlation is not the same as cause.  Could it be, rather, that a person who is more empathetic that usual and who does not have a positive illusion of control is more apt to suffer from a depression that evolves out of a sense of not fitting in with a culture that seems a bit heartless and which, it seems, he has no power to change?

The person who is in step with larger society is likely to have an easier time of it.  That’s why most people try to do that.  That is also probably why they tend to be happier— they’re not banging their heads against the wall.

But does it seem a bit backwards to anyone else to define the person who sees the truth others do not as the one who is insane?  To define the person without a mild delusion of grandeur as the one who is less mentally healthy?  To say that recognizing common humanity before the particular social definitions of one’s time and place is insanity?

Is sanity synonymous with happiness?  Could it be rather less sane to be happy and content when the situation does not warrant it?

Is sanity synonymous with fitting in? Is being content with the way things are actually sane if things are not that great?

To quote Don Quixote (the version from the musical play Man of La Mancha), “When life itself is lunatic who knows where madness lies.  Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest still, to see life as it is and not as it ought to be.”