Thursday, April 25, 2013


When I see pieces like this one, I am somewhat disturbed. Mostly because I read this as a privileged view of the poverty and welfare issue, but also a mix of politics and religion that seems naïve and disingenuous.

Compassion is defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”, or from Oxford dictionaries: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” There are probably other dictionaries and definitions that can be used, but it appears to be some level of empathy, and perhaps action.

The piece talks about an original definition of suffering with another. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure where the “true definition” in the piece of people helping others comes from.

The view that people only look to government to help is somewhat true, and I mourn the fact that so few people are willing to volunteer and help. However many people are willing to donate and give to groups that do help others. I’m not sure I find a huge distinction in those that are willing to donate time versus money, but that is me.

What disturbs me in the piece is this idea that most people want government to help others, and that those being helped are somehow having government substitute welfare payments for their attempt to work. That people receiving help from the government are shiftless, lazy, and unwilling to work hard enough to support themselves.

I’m sure there are people like this, but overall I find this argument mostly full of shit and distorting the picture. Welfare payments are small. They are not providing an easy life for most people. Some may game the system, but many people that I have known or read about getting benefits are struggling to survive. They miss meals. They go without heat or light. Their kids forego participation in sports or other activities. They don’t ever go to the doctor, or if they go to the emergency room, they struggle to pay for medicine.

For many of these people, many who work full-time or beyond, putting in lawyers’ hours for fast good workers’ pay, life is hard. It’s hard in way most of the people that have the time and access to read Facebook can’t imagine.

I was in that situation a long time ago. Not for long, and I didn’t miss meals, but we struggled. We worked hard, and made our way out of the situation, but I was lucky. Yes, my Mom worked very hard, and we as kids chipped in where we could or bore the struggles without many complaints, but we were lucky.

We had hit the gene lottery. We had intelligence, we spoke English, and perhaps just as important, my Mom was white. If you think that doesn’t make a difference, you have very little clue as to just how much of a handicap it can be for those that aren’t. Racism exists. and while it’s not pervasive, look how quickly after events involving a person of color, or even an immigrant, do the media, government officials, and plenty of people, white or otherwise, turn on a group of people for no reason other than their color or ethnicity.

If you think you got where you are just because of your own hard work, you are deluded. Somewhere along the way you had help, and most importantly, you had the fortune to be born with some intelligence, dexterity, skill, or something else. That doesn’t even remotely include the benefits (or handicap) that came from your parents’ situation (wealth, career, morals, etc.), or from the place where you were born. Those things all have a huge impact on life, and many people born into less than favorable situations or with average (or subpar) skills, struggle their whole lives.

There’s no doubt out welfare system could be done better. There are ways we could improve both the work situation for people as well as build in more responsibility and pride in people to be good citizens. I’m a libertarian at heart, but I also recognize that the harsh reality of everyone out for themselves ignores some of the realities of today. I’d like to see more people standing on their own without the need for help, but I know we cannot eliminate this completely, and we also have a huge “get there from here” problem.

I’ve deviated away from compassion, but that’s largely because the piece did so as well, ignoring many factors that can impact the need for compassion. At the end of the discussion, I feel that compassion is us caring for others, whether we do so personally, or we believe a civilized government ought to be a part of that. Compassion is the understanding and help we give others.


AndyLeonard said...

Hi Steve,

I read an article about compassion today, too. It may have been the same article, I'm not sure.

I think it made a great point about compassion: that voting to take away someone else's money is *not* compassion.

I don't think anyone believes they're an island. Every successful person I know knows they participate in an economy, and they know that economy is cyclical and involves trade with others.

What's troubling is having government officials - the president or anyone else - insinuate that government interference ("help") is a requirement for success. In many cases, the government stifles accomplishment and punishes success. The motive of equality is laudable, but stinks if the best we can achieve is poverty and dependence for all.

I don't believe this is the best we can do. I agree with you that we can do better. I hope the illusion of entitlement ends soon, and by some other means than inevitable economics.

Leonard Murphy said...

I wrote a blog post on a similar topic: understanding the innate advantages some people have that others don't, and how that plays into academic success.

Anonymous said...

I've given up on arguing the point about government or individual compassion. I understand the "you can't tax me and call it compassion" argument and the "we've got to do something but individually we can't do enough" argument.

The fact of the matter is we need some of both government and personal compassion. We have gotten to the point as a nation where we're so engaged in arguing over the ratio that we're forgetting the whole point of the argument: to show compassion and to give others who need it a helping hand.