Archives for category: compassion

“When a disease image is used by Machiavelli, the presumption is that the disease can be cured. ‘Consumption,’ he wrote, in the commencement is easy to cure, and difficult to understand; but when it has neither been discovered in due time, nor treated upon a proper principle, it becomes easy to understand, and difficult to cure.” (from “Illness as Metaphor” by Susan Sontag)

This is sort of an obvious idea, that if you are looking out clearly before everyone else is, what might eventually be a problem, isn’t hard to solve. And when it’s obvious to everyone, it’s very difficult to solve. This is where we are now. I’ve read the same articles everyone else has about PPE and stay at home measures and masks.

And what the hell happened in Michigan this week? Armed people stormed the capital and got in? And were not stopped? (As one friend noted: Is it time to be scared yet?) Everyone apparently went home at the end of the day and no one was hurt or shot. (As another friend noted: This is how you know they were white.)

The problem is obvious if there’s compassion, but how can we show compassion to those who behave in ways that we despise? Those Michigan protesters are frightened, possibly already out of work, financially and domestically at risk, and desperately wanting a return to normal. Because I want doctors and nurses not to be at risk and nursing homes and meat packing plants not to continue to be outbreak vectors, I see this thing one way. But those folks storming the Lansing statehouse? They want to be able to work and get the kids out of the house and fight battles against things they can see, like legislators rather than things they can’t.

Years ago, a woman I respect pointed me to The Five Love Languages, a bit of relationship self-help which I read and found things applicable to my own relationship. (I’m a fiction guy – this is way out of my usual reading, so bear with me.) The writer is a marriage counselor with a heavy Christian leaning and I took from it what spoke to me and let the rest go. The thesis is that each person feels best loved when that love is expressed in one or two of five different ways. And he illustrates this with a couple dozen case studies from his own practice. One such case has stuck with me: A woman comes in for counseling whose husband has been emotionally abusive to her since not long after their wedding. Her attempts to communicate and love in her husband’s language started to bridge the divide between them and they were able to build their relationship together again.

In America’s political divide, from which we find armed men from one side invading the capital where a governor from the other party is trying to keep people safe from our current pandemic, we have to find ways to make the whole thing work. I’m not suggesting that those of us on the left simply need to learn the love languages of those on the right and that will make everything better. In the summer of 2016, I spent some time with some very politically active and astute members of my family. A cousin predicted that we would lose the election because democrats still weren’t speaking to the needs of those in the so-called heartland. I’m not sure if that’s the (only) reason we lost, but I’m not seeing the language coming from Joe Biden that’s going to cross the divide either. Note: I’m also an armchair policy wonk. I want to hear from Biden specifically what he’s going to do to ease the crisis. How he’s going to get PPE and ventilators to all the places that need it, how he’s going to make people the focus of the crisis and not big business, how how how. I’m not getting it yet, but I’m probably not listening in the right places. (And being an ocean away from the US part of this crisis, means I’m not seeing the headlines on a daily basis either.) In politics, policy might be my love language.

And getting back to the opening salvo: the illness and its associated crises are very easy to see now. And as such, very easy to suggest how to attack each portion of the problem. One thing I see that we need is a kind of national compassion that is beyond the skills of the current administration. What I hear is the stoking of division and the coddling of big business at the expense of the working class. This has been what I’ve heard and seen as long as this administration has been in power. The current moment demands unity and unification if we’re going to solve it and most of us live through it.

Last week I saw one of those blocks of text posted on Facebook in an image file. I probably know better than to share these things without looking up who the attribution belongs to, but no one who read it called me out on the person who said this:

Treated like starved rats in cages, human beings will interact accordingly. If everyone had jobs, healthcare, education, and safe, affordable housing, relations between humans would be transformed: With nothing to police, there would be no need for police. But with scarcity comes the need to enforce the unequal distribution of resources. The absurd contradiction we must resolve is that capitalist scarcity is artificial. There is more than enough to go around. It is only the profit motive that stands in the way of a rational system of production, distribution, and exchange in harmony with the environment.

(Attributed to a John Peterson – none of the John Petersons or John Petersens on Wikipedia’s disambiguation pages seem to be the type to utter this sort of sentiment. However, a search reveals the quote comes from a July, 2016 editorial published on and possibly also in The Socialist Appeal. USA: Police Brutality, Racism, and the Politics of Polarization.)

Two people commented on the post. One offered a pretty flippant restating of the communist declaration (‘to each according to ability, from each according to need’) as ‘To each according to their ability to fake their need, from each according to their ability to hide their skills.’

Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

There’s no arguing the Marxist perspective of the original quote, but boiling it down to the failure of Communism to produce a just society is missing the point. The second commenter wrote something longer than most of my blog entries in which he described the key failures of communism in Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic (a place he lived for 20 years and I lived for five). The issues he brought up revolved around the tenet ‘He who does not steal from the state steals from his family’ and the soul-destroying pervasiveness of the state apparatus.

Both of these comments, however, miss the point Peterson is trying to make: We have too much money, food, and housing to deny a roof and a meal to anyone. The scarcity under which we operate is a construct we use to keep a large segment of the population in straits. I can’t explain our defense of the status quo any more than I can explain why we continue to teach children that it’s acceptable to bully the kid being raised by an interracial or same sex couple. Insert comment here about Americans all being frustrated millionaires rather than one medium-sized tragedy or difficulty from being on the street.

The trick, of course, is extricating ourselves. Politically speaking, it’s a nonstarter, at least in the UK and the US. But have you walked over the homeless in any major city? What I keep trying to say here, in as many different ways as I can is that it doesn’t matter how a person gets into straits, or finds herself unable to feed her family or ends up estranged from the network of people who raised him. The social contract we’re in as members of human society should be the one in which a person on the street gets a meal, a roof, care.

I have found myself and others concerned with the difference between what that poor person gets and what we have. And what we’ve earned that they haven’t. Politics always plays into this craziness and the flip side of housing the family on the street is looking at extreme wealth. I do begrudge the very wealthy their fortunes for a variety of reasons, the main one being that there are hungry people on our streets. Another is that the extremely wealthy find it easier to maintain power structures that enable the hoarding of wealth. And then there’s the way extreme wealth seems to multiply for some at about same rate as extreme poverty multiplies for the rest of society. Earlier I was looking at the Wikipedia article on presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. In passing, the article notes that in 2009, Bloomberg’s wealth was approximately 16 billion dollars. Think of how many people you know that have even 16 thousand dollars available to them. At the time, Bloomberg was worth one million times that sum. One question is, how has he nearly quadrupled that fortune in ten years? I think we can look at most members of the two houses of the US Congress and find similar expansions of fortune, in terms of rate, if not scale.

And I ask: Leaving 10 billion dollars in his pockets, how many people can you feed, clothe, and house for 50 billion dollars? Flip it around. If you could levy a one-time tax on wealth of that magnitude of even 10%, how many people could Bloomberg feed for six billion dollars? When we talk about how to feed people in the US, we have to look at the people in those strata because the wealth keeps getting sucked up and none of it trickles down, notwithstanding the lies of Ronald Reagan all the economists he and his successors parroted.

At what point does the hoard just become accumulation for the sake of accumulation? We know that shame plays no role in this. If it did, we wouldn’t have people working multiple jobs just to keep one step or half a step ahead of winding up in a tent city under a freeway. When does the fact that San Francisco, New York, and Manchester, London, Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro having large sectors that look like something out of the Grapes of Wrath reveal to us the poverty of our responses?

And how large do we have to think for this situation to become largely unacceptable? We’ve been accepting it so long, that it seems normal.

I know that I’m extraordinarily blessed in that I live in a country with a safety net and that my health insurance costs are capped by law. There are a lot of complaints about Dutch medical care, and I’m sure that if I delved deeply enough, I’d find some horror stories. However, in the Netherlands, and in most of Europe, catastrophic illness doesn’t bankrupt the insured. Note that no one here is uninsured – the benefits system is such that a person in straits for whatever reason is still covered. If you’re not in straits, the system requires each person to pay for a basic level of coverage. At the moment, that basic level costs something like EUR 110 per month. (I don’t know the precise number because I take advantage of a higher level.

I don’t know how to address things like GoFundMe pages for people who suffer catastrophic illnesses or emergencies or simply get blindsided by insurance companies that cover ambulance company X, but not ambulance company Y. Too bad that company Y was sent when you called 911. No, it’s not that I don’t know how to address these things, it’s the fact that we’re still stuck in the situation that people aren’t covered for illness by default. When the Clintons tried to work out some kind of universal health coverage in the US in the 90s, they were beaten back by the insurance industry. When Obama tried the same thing, he was beaten almost from the get-go. The fact that he managed to eke some success out of all that political capital, and all that bloody opposition is a credit to the man.

I worked in healthcare for several years in the 90s. My mother was a medical secretary and my stepdad was an EKG tech before he moved into fundraising at the same hospital. So I’ve always had some input and insight as to how these systems work. For an idea, see the history section of the Wikipedia article on health insurance in the US.

Because Franklin Roosevelt sidestepped the issue at the time he was pushing for various reforms in social policy, the medical industries were able to consolidate their efforts against any kind of socialized medicine. By the time Truman took up the gauntlet in 1949, the AMA was prepared. And for 80 years they and the various for-profit healthcare organizations have fought tooth and nail to prevent any kind of socialized care in the US. And because everyone with full-time employment in the US has an insurance option through one of these plans, the money keeps flowing up to the healthcare industry. Woe be to you if you have to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, because it’s unlikely any of them will provide you with a company-subsidized option. So no matter what you do, you’re in deep to the industry should you need care. Of course, those who are uninsured or underinsured will hesitate to go to the doctor when there’s something seriously wrong. Heaven forbid the coronavirus gain a foothold in the US, but even without it, those at greatest risk for spreading communicable illnesses are those least able to take the time to get care for them. Even in my office (software company, generous work from home options), I have colleagues who feel compelled for whatever reason to come into the office when they’re seriously ill. (I shared a crowded train with one a couple of weeks ago – he’d been home for a few days, and was obviously still sick, coughing into his hands and rubbing his eyes. Alas, the drug store was all out of hand sanitizer because of the latest rush on the stuff.)

So not a week goes by that I don’t see a GoFundMe call on Facebook from someone whose friend is needing money for catastrophic healthcare costs. One level of compassion is to give something to each of those. This is reasonable, but also ridiculous, given how much money should be in the system but isn’t. Ridiculous because it’s somehow easier and better for those with little enough money already to help each other than for the obscenely wealthy to ease up on the greed in the system. It’s another version of the rich guy, working class guy, and immigrant/poor guy looking at a plate of cookies. As the rich guy takes all but one, he says, ‘Look out, the immigrant’s gonna take your cookie.’

I honestly don’t know what to say anymore about this situation. For several years now, I’ve seen the comment that this is the point at which the French started building guillotines. I think on a gut level we know that in France politics suddenly became bloodsport and didn’t stop until the engineers of the Reign of Terror were themselves sent to the scaffold. We also seem to have sufficient bloodsport/bread/circuses/entertainment to keep us looking the other way as the things we deserve as members of this society, as contributors to the social contract are taken away.

It’s not a just matter of someone less fortunate than we are taking our cookie, it’s that along with all of the other basics that are part of surviving and thriving together, compassion calls on us to fund as individuals what should be funded by society as a whole.

Edited to add this link, posted to the same day I posted this entry:

“You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over medical bills”: County in rural Kansas is jailing people over unpaid medical debt

My thoughts on compassion boil down to the question, ‘What do we owe each other?’ What do we with privilege owe to those without? What do the powerful owe to the powerless?

This isn’t original- it’s the entire premise of The Good Place. Have you watched The Good Place yet? Really, go and watch it. (And if you haven’t seen it, don’t read too far into that Wikipedia article – the twist at the end of season 1 depends on you having no idea. Most of the cast had no idea. But watch it.)

From a recent episode of the Allusionist podcast:

And the etymology of compassionate? It’s late Latin for com plus patti, so to suffer together. And yes, the root of passion is to suffer. But compassion is ‘to feel the pain of others,’ which is terribly moving.

Back when they still taught civics and government in American high schools (showing my age, I know), we learned that America’s founding fathers didn’t invent the documents on which the country is based from whole cloth. Teachers referenced and sometimes even assigned material from France’s Age of Reason. I’m sure one or two referenced Jean Jacques Rosseau’s Of the Social Contract. At 15, I’m sure I couldn’t actually have absorbed much about it. If one had boiled it down to this sentence (from the introductory essay of the Penguin edition (Quentin Hoare translation), I still would have zoned out:

‘Rousseau’s central aim in Of the Social Contract is to explain how the freedom of the individual can be reconciled with the authority of the state.’

What did stick with me was this: Rousseau argued that the members of a society owe certain things to the group, and can expect certain things, by virtue of all participating in the same society.

And so, reminded that we are all in this together, I started reading the source document. Rousseau is addressing not just any society but a certain kind of perfect direct democracy in which Citizens engage in public deliberation as the legislature of the State with the complete understanding that harm to other members harms the body of the State and that harm to the State directly affects the other members of it.

That’s a poor paraphrase of a very small part of Rousseau’s philosophy, but it’s something like this that the writers of the Constitution were after when they wrote ‘in order to form a more perfect union,’ into that document’s preamble, this idea that we form a government in order to do better by all of the members of the society.

Rousseau is philosophizing a utopia; the folks at Philadelphia were keen to put Rousseau’s principles into practice. It’s unlikely the founders had that much compassion on their minds, given that a few decades later we had to fight the Civil War over their abject failure to abolish slavery (for a start). They did, however, consider the need to have the branches of government independent of both one another and of the voter.

One of these things we learned in those Civics classes was that the amendments to the constitution were generally advancements towards that more perfect union. A sort of ex cathedra of the people. (Rousseau, I think, would have approved of the idea of the general populous acting as a single pope.) As such, the 17th amendment, which provided for direct election of senators, was an advance. I was listening to a political podcast a couple of days ago (It might have been WNYC’s Impeachment: A Daily Podcast – 22 January, but I wouldn’t swear to it) in which there as an assertion that the founding fathers couldn’t have foreseen a senate as craven as the current one because the original version of the Constitution called for state legislatures to elect the senators, avoiding certain issues regarding who senators might be beholden to.

There were a few good reasons to address the process for the election of senators, including periods during which at least one state failed to send any senators at all to Washington because of deadlocks in the state legislature. On the other hand, we can probably guess that a call for the direct election of senators led by William Randolph Hearst (yeah, the newspaper magnate who successfully agitated for war with Spain in the 1890s) might be suspect. (Note: I’m well aware that the issue is a lot more complicated than that and that for a few decades, the benefits of direct elections outweighed the disadvantages.)

This, of course, isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the truisms that a 1980s LAUSD education implanted in my brain, and that a couple of college poli-sci classes tried to remedy. For a long time I held to the idea that many of our steps were a step towards that more perfect union. To paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of our democratic experiment was bending towards some kind of perfection.

Of course it doesn’t, and the gravitational pull of so many things in our society has bent the arc towards indifference (at best). There doesn’t seem to be a Latin-rooted antonym for compassion that includes that root of suffering. Indifference is one of the clearer opposites – a complete lack of suffering with those nearest.

What am I getting to with this discussion: The question of what we owe one another relates directly to how we vote. I’ve talked about voting with compassion. I believe we owe one another a government that isn’t cruel, capricious, or beholden. At the moment we suffer all three, and the one thing that’s least helpful in these discussions is belief.

I don’t know if this statistic belongs in this blog entry or another, but I’ll leave it here for the moment:

Federal immigration officials told a judge last week they believe they’ve finally settled on the number of children separated from their parents by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The number is 4,368. (Los Angeles Times, 18 January, 2020.)

In his book Be Here Now, Ram Dass recounts a teacher who would utter the occasional aphorism and then leave the room, such as ‘When a pickpocket meets a saint, he sees only his pockets’ (Chapter 9, ‘Ashtanga Yoga’). Expanded, this might be rephrased ‘The needy see only in others what can satisfy their needs.’ As Lampert views Freud and Darwin as being reductionist, this interpretation of the guru’s teaching reduces the idea to something very base.

Ram Dass, when he was learning, had already been a psychotherapist for several years and had some experience in human need. We’re all in need, all in pain, and all fighting battles others can’t see (as one meme that I see often puts it). The trick is to alleviate pain in spite of the perceived worth of the one in pain, the perceived view of whether they deserve it, their ability to express gratitude (indeed in spite of whatever response the recipient gives – it may not be gracious according to your definition), their skin color, their fill-in-any-reason you think you have to think they are unworthy.

Deuteronomy 15:11, There are always poor and needy among us. This is used to excuse any attempt to eradicate poverty as doomed to failure. And it goes hand in hand with that pickpocket quote. Ram Dass uses the quote as an example of a tool for self-reflection. When we talk about neediness, though – food insecurity, homelessness, psychological need (in whatever form that might take), there’s a block to letting the need of others touch us. What are the excuses for not making eye contact with the person begging (or ranting) on the street? I excuse my own haste with the mantra that I’ve got to get somewhere. I’m historically convinced by those in need to give more than I’m comfortable with (I’m not yet ready to tell myself or anyone else to give until it hurts), so I run off before I can give much of anything. I turn away. When I have my act together in the morning, I shovel change into my pocket so that I can at least give that when asked. But that’s barely sandwich money for someone without a roof. The short answer is to see my last post about voting with compassion.

I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in telling myself a short story to excuse not doing something for another person. Some people in need take all the time and energy you might have to give them. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and except for the most banal topics, I wouldn’t give anything of myself for fear of being sucked dry, or tell anyone with the tools to help how much pain I was in for fear of being that emotional squid. Can I stop telling those stories?

The problem with trying to discuss this stuff is that I come off as very very preachy. And hypocritical. I’m historically a selfish person with my time, my energy, and my money. But the source of the change I want to see in the world is that compassion I keep talking about. I have privilege in more ways than I can count. In no particular order, my privilege includes the confidence of the middle-aged white male that I am, residence in a country (The Netherlands) which boasts a pretty robust safety net, gainful employment, and savings and a pension. And I’m trying not to be just those things.

With the new year, I can certainly say, again, that I’ll give more, take less, volunteer at the food bank and so forth. (Last year I made an effort to volunteer, but my Dutch was too lousy. It’s slightly better now. Need to try again.) And I’m surrounded by people who are both privileged and committed to change. I want to do more to eradicate need. I’m only just starting. There are already leaders – part of this blog experiment is to identify the most effective ways to follow.