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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Think About Others

Maybe this has happened to you:

You are striding purposely down a big city street.  Perhaps you are walking from the train station to your office.  It is not a good weather day - it is cold, grey  and there is snow on the ground.  Many other commuters surround you; you are moving in the flow of pedestrian traffic, making quick alterations in your direction and trajectory to avoid collisions with other purposeful people.  You glance to your right and you see him.

He is not dressed adequately for the cold weather.  The whites of his eyes have a yellowish hue.  He is not very clean, and he is rattling a plastic Big Gulp cup that has about 6 quarters in it.  He is holding a sign that might say "Broke and All Alone."

You pat your pockets for a couple of single dollar bills - pulling out the wallet to contribute to this fellow would break your momentum and you are in a big damned hurry, as usual.  There are no singles in your pocket; you grimace and walk on by.  At first, you berate yourself for not being a "good person" and providing some small bit of help to a troubled human being.  This causes you to feel guilty, and the guilt quickly morphs into resentment.  So whose fault is it that the guy is "Broke and All Alone?" Not yours!  Maybe he is a DRUG ABUSER or CRAZY or A DANGER TO OTHERS!  He needs to take care of his own self, goddammit, take responsibility for his circumstances, make better decisions, etc. etc.  You work like mad to justify your lack of compassion.

I am a lucky person.  I live and work among lucky people.  Through some combination of good fortune, strong cognitive skills, family status and clear-headed decisions, these folks are settled and secure in circumstances that are quite comfortable. Some of these folks might think that homeless people are a nuisance.  "They should pull themselves together and get a job!" And so on.  The lucky people don't know how to think about others who are not lucky.

Here are the facts - some people are ill.  They have brain disorders that make it difficult to perform the activities of daily living, let alone the activities of a successful careerist. It is not easy being dirt poor.  Getting the basics to survive can involve a very long day of very hard work, lots of walking from one place to another, coping with rejection, dealing with unfriendly police and unkind fellow citizens.

I learned some time ago that just because I can do something with relative ease (due to my fortunate background, the color of my skin, my outstanding education, etc.), that doesn't mean that the homeless guy on the corner can "buck up" and succeed just like I did.  I also learned that just because I have done my "stuff," that doesn't make me an expert in how others should do their "stuff."

It is true that everyone bears some responsibility for their condition, and that perseverance and determination can overcome adversity.  It is also true that random events make a huge difference.  What is your genetic make-up?  How rich were your parents?  How much trauma did you experience in your life?  It is important to think about these things when you think about other people.  Think about these things before you spout glib opinions.  Think about these things before you pass judgment on the guy who is "Broke and All Alone."

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