Not too long ago I was at dinner on a business trip, sitting beside a man that I work with a lot, who is smart and does a good job and answers my hundreds of detailed questions with as much clarity as he can. He’s a nice guy, pleasant to be around, polite, funny. We’re going to call him Dave. I don’t remember exactly how this came up, but Dave said, “I think every able-bodied person in the United States who wants a job can find one if they really want it.”
Out loud I said, “Really? You think so?” Inside I was saying something like “Oh, crap. Here we go.” Because the place where I work is, as a whole, pretty conservative, but I, on the other hand, am not. So a lot of times I get to be the card-carrying liberal at a table full of conservative white men. I have not been working at this place very long, which means a lot of people don’t know me well and probably assume that I am also conservative. Then they say things like what Dave said and expect me to say, “How insightful! I agree!” But I don’t. Because I am 40 and I don’t really care whether they like me or agree with me. I want them to know that there are logical arguments on both sides, so I tend to share my perspective politely. Generally that goes pretty well, and a lot of times we both learn something.
This particular conversation deteriorated, though, and fast. Eventually it lead to that ugly place it so often does, that is, to low-income people abusing public assistance. Dave believes in the ability of kids to “bootstrap” themselves out of the life they’ve been handed by all the broken adults who are supposed to be raising them. Dave told me that the age at which a child can decide that he is going to be successful, i.e, at which he can decide to overcome the hunger, the stress, the fear, the lack of support and the dangerous environment in which he is growing up is – get ready – 11 years old. If the kid doesn’t decide to be awesome by 11, according to Dave, he’s lost. I kind of lost it myself at this point, because while I agree that it is theoretically possible that a kid can make a decision like that, very rarely, if ever, can they do it without an almost impossible amount of help and support. Help from their parents, their family, their church, their school, their teacher, their bus driver, and yes, sometimes their government – SOMEBODY who cares enough to see that this child is hurting and needs a path forward. But remember that there are many, many kids who do not have a single Somebody. It is not realistic to expect a child without a Somebody to decide at the age of 11 to haul themselves up out of poverty. It’s not. And it is dangerously, tragically easy for a guy at a paid-for dinner on a paid-for business trip, a guy who has good health insurance and a great job, to point to a 10 year-old and say, “Better get moving, kid. You got a year.”
I made these points to Dave. The thing he said next was, “You know what? I don’t care. Fu@k ‘em. It’s natural selection.” I am going to pause for a moment to let that sink in.
I was a little stunned. This was no longer even in the realm of liberal vs. conservative. I truly do not care if someone has a different view on politics from mine. That is what democracy is about, people. Vote however you want. No, this felt very, very different. This felt like one human being with a lot telling another human being with nothing that he did not care. Just could not be bothered to worry about the struggle of another person to survive.
This conversation upset me, for what I hope are a lot of very obvious reasons. I ended up, yet again, being the “woman” at the table. The soft-hearted, naïve, organic-food-eating liberal woman at the table. Which made me so mad, because why am I the weirdo when Dave is out there walking around not caring about other people who are desperate and NEED OUR HELP? It is not naïve or soft or weak or liberal to feel compassion for another human being. It is right.
I began to look very carefully at myself, and I realized that I was doing exactly nothing to help. So I started this blog, hoping to inspire other people to quit expecting so much out of each other. Hoping that people would give each other a break, offer a hand instead of judgment or indifference. And I even figured out that this lack of judgment must, no matter how hard, extend to Dave himself. I signed up to volunteer at the food pantry with my family. We cleaned out our closets and donated everything we could. We donated money to the WIC voucher matching program at our farmers market.
And now I am starting to feel better. We are out there now, hoping and trying to find ways to be a Somebody. Dave, I’m sure, has no idea that I am over here still thinking about what he said. And that what I would say to him now is, “Guess what, Dave? Your indifference has run up against a wall of compassion. Look at what you’ve helped create. All this good is happening. All this love. IT IS HAPPENING, and you’re missing it.”