You just never know
This last week I had two tweets that people seemed to connect with. I didn’t really think of them as related or the fact that they both sprang to mind because the book review of Jonathan Foiles’ This City is Killing Me that I have coming out soon.
In the first one, I reflected on the ways my dad (both my parents really) raised us to treat working people with kindness, dignity, and respect. I should note that he didn’t reserve this attitude just for working people, but the poor and oppressed more generally. But, and I said this in a tweet about it, my dad’s version of compassion and dignity worked in reverse from how I think a lot of us have learned that compassion, sympathy, dignity, and the actions they inspire ought to work.
I remember vividly sitting around the kitchen table. We’d pray and begin eating and then, of course, a telemarketer would call. My dad would calmly answer the phone and listen to what they had to say. “Uh, uh. Well, hey, I tell you what I’m not interested but I really do appreciate your phone call, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.” He’d then turn to us and say, “You just never know why someone had to take that job. I bet they didn’t want to. Maybe their kid has cancer and they couldn’t find anything else. You just never know.”
My dad didn’t grow up poor, but he never had much more than enough. His mom worked in a factory until going on disability after getting hit by a car. When told she needed to exercise to stay healthy and because of the state of her leg after the accident she could only ride a stationary bike. She rode it for 20 minutes every morning. She logged 200,000 miles on it by the time she died. His dad paid child support every month. My dad attributes those two regular payments, disability and child support, to the fact that he and my grandma never really struggled financially though of course they lived in a very small town in Louisiana in a time when government benefits paid okay. I think when he picked up the phone to talk to the telemarketer, when he saw a server at Cracker Barrel struggling to get the food out in time, when a recovering alcoholic or a depressed truck driver showed up at church, my dad realized that could’ve been his mom. It could’ve been him. You just never know.
I appreciate that my parents gifted me a compassion born out of ignorance, not knowledge. They taught me (unknowingly) that I should treat people with kindness and respect, generosity and justice not because I listen to their story, find something moving in it, and then act on that feeling to help them out, but because I haven’t done those things. And because I haven’t, I don’t know what that person on the other line has gone through. I don’t know what that server is dealing with. How could I unless I got to know them and their story? Since I don’t have the time to do that I should just treat them as if they’ve undergone the worst, as if they live with a pain I don’t know.
The standard formula for change goes something like this. In order to bring about change for a better world or just better circumstances for someone, you have to learn to hurt for and with them. I see your pain and in feeling something of it myself, I’m moved to action. Feeing your pain dries me to build a better world or rectify the injustice that caused you to hurt in the first place. This usually entails a certain form of knowledge. I need to know the circumstances that led you to this place and believe they were unjust. I need to hear you tell your story to know where you come from and what happened to you before I can give you some money for food or pay for your housing or work politically for better schools for your kids. On this understanding, shared pain forms the basis for common action.
Look, both my parents kind of believe in this too. We all kind of do. I don’t oppose hearing people’s stories or sitting with them when they have pain. But what about those people on the other end of the phone or the server at the restaurant? We have to understand that justice means accounting for those people that we can’t or don’t feel anything for or whose stories we’ll never know.
Far too often, proximity helps people build in exceptions. I know a bunch of rich people that grew up in circumstance similar to my dad that don’t understand the ways that the structures of society provided for them to succeed financially. They think “well I made it. Why can’t they?” I’m currently reading Jennifer Silva’s We’re Still Here about people she talked to in a poor coal mining city in Pennsylvania. She discovered that the plight of poor people in the city didn’t build out leftist solidarity or conservative politics. They just disengage. They turned inward. She found that a number of people on SNAP (food stamps) think the government shouldn’t expand the program. Many SNAP recipients in the book know someone else on them that they claim don’t deserve them. Proximity seems to give us the kind of knowledge that lets us see ourselves as exceptional. Maybe we can know too much.
The other tweet that people seemed to latch onto just said that on Thursday a woman, T, came by the church looking for help and I helped her with what she needed. She and her five kids had lived in hotels and her car off and on. If you haven’t watched The Florida Project yet, you should. T works two jobs and had finally secured a lease on an apartment, but she needed $1,000 by the end of the day to move in. I met her because she drove around to a bunch of churches to ask for help. Just so happened I decided to work at the church that morning and just so happened we have a fund setup to help with those situations. We designed it to function less responsively and more proactively than I had to act in that moment, but the basic philosophy of the fund says that we help get people out of poverty by paying for the things they need to get out of poverty.
T and I went and got a money order for her rent and a couple of Visa gift cards. I ordered some air mattresses, blankets, and pillows for her and the kids. Absolute least we could do given the late notice, and I will confess that I have turned away far more people than I have helped at every church I’ve worked at.
Someone might look at this situation and say that I heard her story, felt and related to her pain and it moved me to action. Moved by compassion, I acted. But that story doesn’t tell the truth. Compassion didn’t move me. I didn’t feel much of anything. I just had to do the right thing as best I saw it. And this comes back to the question of compassion born out of ignorance not knowledge. I try my best not to feel too much in these situations. I don’t want a surgeon overcome with emotion about the patient they operate on. Poverty’s a problem much more akin to surgery: a practical problem that requires the movement of money. The more a surgeon or person with money is overcome with emotion the less likely they are to act wisely or justly.
I remember my dad on those phone calls or at Cracker Barrel or the gas station: you just never know. What more could I need to know about T that would change the fact that she has five kids and they need a place to sleep and that $1,000 stands in the way? I could run a credit report and find out how she plans to spend her money in the future, but that’s going to take a bunch of time. Who knows? What difference does it make?
It also shouldn’t depend on how I relate to T. I don’t think I have to feel the pain and anxiety that a black woman in America feels to understand that our church ought to pay for her to have an apartment. I could never have an experience in which I feel the pain that a poor, black person feels. It shouldn’t matter how many times they tell me their story or how sad I get. Doing the right and just thing just is what it is regardless of if I do it because I believe it’s right or because I feel sad after hearing someone’s story. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be black or a woman. I can know the right thing to do, and I can do it. Or not. Who knows?
Ultimately it comes down to what we want to do together, with and for one another. We can’t feel each other’s pain. That’s just not the nature of pain. No matter if you stub your toe or your mom dies or someone thinks you shouldn’t have housing because you’re black, I can’t actually feel that pain in the same way you do. We can only possess so much knowledge about the circumstances that led us to where we are now and how we will live in the future. So we only have each other and the possibility of doing the right thing, something we all fail at more often than we should.
We can know what we want to share. I can know that it would be better for T not to have to come to the church asking for money to have housing for her kids. I can know that it’d be better for people not to have to scrape by. I can know that it’d be better for people not to have to sleep outside under a bridge in Durham. I can know that I don’t want people to be in poverty or go hungry. We can’t feel another’s pain, but we can meet each other as equals and that’s much easier to do when one of us doesn’t have to come to my church to ask for $1,000 to get into an apartment. I’m glad she did. I wish she didn’t have to.
Ultimately I want us to have what we need. We don’t get there by trying to feel with or for each other. We don’t have a wellspring of compassionate feelings within us just waiting to be tapped by the right story or the right display of emotions. We’re fragile and exhaustible and stories of pain wear us out. That’s not to say we shouldn’t tell them, just that we should recognize our limits. We should also tell stories of the worlds we might build together that don’t include the pain of homelessness, racism, exploitation and oppression. I believe sympathy and compassion will get us there but only because we can never feel each other’s pains and we can never know each other’s stories well enough. We should be humble enough to admit that other people’s lives are probably as fragile as ours, their stories as unknowable as ours and then structure our world accordingly. You just never know.
If you’d like to subscribe to this newsletter, you can do so here.