on deficits of compassion

Disdain bespeaks great deficits of compassion, it seems to me, so I have set myself the task of not feeling or speaking or dwelling in its eddies, no matter how great my disagreement with someone else’s actions or words might be. In a society that is de-evolving as swiftly as the U.S. presently is, however—de-evolving and breaking on every hand every day and then some—clearing the eddies of disdain can sometimes be a herculean task.

Yesterday I failed. Utterly. I will not indulge in a full rehash of the back story, but where disdain exists, there is almost always something else going on that must be dealt with or no exit can emerge: so I think it’s worth noting that a key plank on which I was standing before the great fail was that the Republicans presently in control of the Wisconsin State Assembly voted this week to impose onerous and sweeping restrictions on what people who receive SNAP benefits can purchase at the grocery story. Since the average SNAP recipient gets $125 PER MONTH or less, these restrictions are just mean. I wrote a hotly worded Facebook post about the effort, knowing full well that the Wisconsin State Senate and the federal government would both have to concur and that both were unlikely to do so, but feeling that such un-Christian behavior should be called out in public by people like me anyway, lest we be fully complicit with the meanness. Here’s the status update and the link to the original article.

Wisconsin Republicans: doubling down on mean, craven, cruel, and out-and-out un-Christian. Bear in mind that even Congress (same values) has designated ketchup as a vegetable, but the Wisconsin Republicans now intend to ban poor people from buying it. They have also banned spaghetti sauce in jars (and cans), salsa, baked beans, pork and beans, creamed vegetables, pickles, any frozen veggies that come in packages featuring pasta, nuts, rice, cheese, or meats, french fries and hash browns, sharp cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, and fresh mozzarella, shredded and sliced cheeses (except American cheese of course), cheese food, spreads, and products. (“Even Kosher cheese is banned unless you apply to get a specific check for it which basically could identify who the poor Jewish people are.”) Also banned are canned peas and green beans, albacore tuna, red salmon, and fish fillets, bagels, pita bread, English muffins, white rice and wild rice, red and yellow potatoes, soups, nuts, trail mix, herbs and seasonings, cranberry sauce, and pie filling. 

Bear in mind, too, that the average SNAP recipient gets $125 or less PER MONTH in benefits. There is a lot of evil in the world, but fat-cat elected officials who pass bills like this one? Are as evil as humans get. If the people of Wisconsin don’t wake up and throw the bums out of office? Then God. I don’t even want to know or watch what happens next. (Because when they finish legislating poor people, they will be coming for everyone else. Mark my word.)

Hot language, yes, and I even called the supporters of this bill “bums” (which is deeply unfair to actual bums), but I thought I had managed to thread the needle on outright disdain carefully. I was—and remain—angry that elected officials are spending my tax dollars harassing those who have the least among us.

All comments on the post but one acknowledged the unfairness of these Republicans’ behavior. Now here’s the thing: anyone who knows me even a smidgen knows that I have a great deal of problems with most of the elected members of the present Democratic party (which I have dubbed the R2 party, for how reliably they have run far to the right on every major issue of our time), but current Republicans in certain states like Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas—as well as in Congress—are pursuing these huge government slap-downs of regular people constantly now, while handing out billions in subsidies to the very entities that are responsible for breaking the society (and too many others’ as well). They talk small government and do exactly the opposite; they talk Christian nation and act worse than the Devil on a Friday night outing: they are, in other words, as hypocritical as it is possible for politicians to be. No, that’s not a high bar to cross anyway, but many elected members of the present-day Republican party demonstrate deep deficits of compassion, and I honestly do not know how they can face themselves in the mirrors they pass every day. Unfortunately, too many Democrats aren’t enough better to even make a party distinction anymore either. The vast deepening of inequalities in this country can be laid directly at the doors of legislators who are no longer even pretending to serve we, the people.

The nation, as a result, is reeling, and those who have the least among us are daily targeted by mean- spirited politicians who are serving only their corporate (and equally mean-spirited individual) handlers—those who contribute to their campaigns and then get to run the country from safe, high-box seats at the arena. If regular people don’t speak up, we are part of that, in my opinion, and indulging in a series of sins that I am utterly certain will result in damnation for this benighted damn nation. Our only hope now—when politicians ignore us so totally—is to speak up enough that it pricks a few more people’s consciences and gets us all to question our givens and morals more deeply, so that together we have a slim chance to turn the nose of the boat a hair more toward justice and equality for ALL, not just a few. So I made the post, my tiny little effort, and then went back to a book manuscript in which I’m making a bigger effort, putting all my soul into working for the kind of world that I believe we need. A few people weighed in, as stunned and dismayed as I was, and most (as is the norm in a world that has created a slew of excuses for people to tune out anybody else’s troubles) did not.

A stranger, however, made an offhand comment of the sort that people make in this society all the time, complete with blunt words and exclamation marks, both of which I personally enjoy, since they mirror reality and tonal shifts in speech.

Noone said you can’t buy shrimp etc!! 
You just cant do it with your government handout check!
If you want to eat better,,, you’re going to have to contribute!!

While I wouldn’t have voted for this bill, I honestly don’t have a problem with it either!

Now I could have responded with a simple statement: “I can’t agree with you on that. They contribute more than the well-off leeches do (with apologies to actual leeches, who serve a useful function on this planet), and if I didn’t have a problem with this hateful law, I am pretty sure I’d be just as mean-spirited as the legislators who wrote it.” I am a writer, and three or four equally valid short responses occurred to me in less than the time it would take to type them in here. There’s a slippery slope toward disdain in the leech comment (and several of the others that came to mind), but it’s not out-and-out ugly or even mean: particularly since it’s true and pretending otherwise would require lying through all my teeth.

But I did not opt for any of those simple ripostes. I was still angry and so eternally fed up with people attacking the least among us using the superficialities common on talk radio and TV, and thus providing cover for politicians to really attack them, so I kicked simple to the curt and lowered the boom on the person instead, calling him by name (to me a sign of respect), taking his post seriously (instead of flippantly, superficially, or simply ignoring it—which is a very common tactic in parts of society that consider themselves to be ‘polite’ and an exceedingly common way that authorities in this society keep their meannesses structural, unavoidable, and gut-cutting all who are not endowed with their mechanisms). Lowered the bloody boom, I did, and my response reeked with sidelong, but pointed disdain and anger. The anger is well-placed, and I would not change a jot of it for any price. The disdain is not. Editing or deleting it, however, would be a coward’s way out: I said it, wrongly, and I need to own it fully before trying to fix it or make amends.

_____, I don’t know you, but welcome to my wall. Here’s the deal: I know way too many people who are working full-time and still don’t make enough to avoid having to beg for and use these measly (kick Jesus Christ in the teeth and call it holy) unholy benefits. Nobody gets to diss them in my space. Nobody. On the off-chance that you are sincere and simply have no clue what’s really afoot in this benighted damn nation right now? I’m going to talk to you as if you were sitting at my table and had just said what you did about contributions.

If you seriously don’t have a problem with this, you either don’t know enough about what’s actually going on for working families and those who cannot work in this country over the last decade (+ about 20 years, give or take ten more either direction!) or you’re just as hard-hearted and willfully ignorant as these knucklehead legislators who came up with this god-awful shameful bit of legislation. (Take your pick: whichever one you can live with! But in my “house,” neither excuse will suffice.) I’m going to assume that you’re a decent human being and you mean well. So here’s the case I’ll make:

I can guarantee you that most of the people who have to take these piddly (embarrassingly low) benefits contribute a hell of a lot more to this society every blessed day than do the uber-wealthy and the welfare queens that this government subsidizes in mongo fashion: huge corporations, for one example, that duck out on their taxes, accept gigantic subsidies (from us!), and still do not pay even their full-time employees enough so we taxpayers are left footing the bill on basic benefits that don’t fill the gap a livable wage would, too; or, for another example, just way too many of the plain wealthy who can sidestep their tax responsibilities in a thousand different legal ways, so the rest of us wind up carrying their privileged little derrieres. (Ask Warren Buffett: he’s been vocal about how rigged this all is, that it is, indeed, a class war, and that his class is winning: Striking honesty for one who earned his living and is blunt about reality now.) It takes guts to try to raise children and one’s self every day in a society that is doing its dead level best to break everyone but the wealthy. Guts. And if that’s not a contribution? Nothing is. But most of these people also are generous and kind and they volunteer and work to try to help others (way more than the well-off, to be frank, too many of whom usually have to be feted and entertained or have their names put on buildings in order to get them to contribute), and most of these people that I know personally never, ever complain, so it is easy–way too easy–for people in this society to remain ignorant of their sufferings and struggles. That doesn’t pass with silence in my house, nor is anyone allowed to diss them or their contributions and have it passed unmentioned either. 

The economy is broken still—and, remember, it was broken on purpose by, again, people of questionable morals and judgment who hid their misdeeds inside huge entities like banks and financial firms that doubled down on stupid, corrupt, and even illegal profiteering . . . and the U.S. government has yet to actually prosecute a one! (Possibly, I am beginning to think, because the government help simply isn’t smart enough to apply even the few laws we still have on the books for such crimes. Either that or they’re just bought out sole to soul.) Bottom line? Wages now are lower than they were when I took my first job in high school (mid-70s, and no, it’s not about people needing different training, because people like me with PhDs and other advanced degrees and skill sets are just as likely to be unemployed or obscenely underemployed now as somebody who never finished high school.) Meanwhile hardworking people–often holding down two bad-paying but as-full-time-as-they-can-get jobs are losing their homes and can’t afford even subsidized healthcare, much less the basics of life (basic expenses for automobiles and commuting and clothes and utilities sure the heck haven’t dropped in a month of Sundays), and politicians care ONLY, SOLELY about making sure their corporate handlers are well fed and well troughed at the public teat, and so, yes, some of my fellow citizens have to apply for these measly benefits. $125 PER MONTH is the average SNAP subsidy: that won’t buy jack siccum where a family’s monthly food needs are concerned, and anybody who says it will is simply not operating with a full deck of information. Or, if they have the info (have taken the time and effort to inform themselves rather than listen to the gas that passes for mainstream media and punditry) and still lie about it? Then they’re minus even a smidgen of honesty. (Again, take your pick. But this is not the table to prop up at and diss working people or those who cannot work or find a job with livable wages. I’m sure Rush Limbaugh’s table welcomes that kind of dishonesty and hypocrisy. Not here.)

The nation needs to get a blessed grip and quit calling itself Christian at ALL until it begins to do as Jesus taught: which was to care for even the last among us without judgment (including the soft kind, which makes the assumption that these people don’t contribute!). And this kind of legislating is NOT about eating better, either, which is a point that ALL US citizens should be putting a savvy, beady eye on now: it’s about reckless fat-cat lawmakers saying they’re against big government but then cramming the most hateful form of government down every last cell of the throats of our daily lives and bludgeoning the rest of us with their mean-spirited actions. It is a crying shame, and if we don’t want to be contributing to it, then we have to take a vocal stand now. (It’s not even good for the *economy* anymore, either! So there is that.)

Again, welcome. But we don’t diss those who are presently struggling in this space, not even in an aside. We just don’t. We’re better people than that. I know it. I am certain that we can all be way better than we are presently doing. Caring for those who are struggling is the first order of business in becoming a decent human being. That’s the bar for which I aim every day.

His response was brief and blunt,

Feel better now!?! :))
As always, the truth lies buried in the middle of the two vocal arguments,,,
But since nothing short of lock step marching to your drum and beat will be tolerated here, I bid you adieu 

Forgive me for littering your precious space,,, it won’t happen again!

And my response to him was also brief (for me!) and blunt and still using his name to convey fundamental respect for him as a human being:

I’ll feel better whenever we find ways to house and clothe and feed everyone, ____ , when we ensure that no child does without a good education, when we ensure that all have good healthcare, when we work together to rebuild our infrastructure, etc. For starters. Your comment wasn’t litter; it was just out of touch with what real people are suffering with on these issues every single day.

If you care about them, you’ll find a way to fissure your certainties that they’re not already contributing. That attitude is a huge part of why this government can go on wasting so many billions of our public funds on entities that are steadily deconstructing our citizens’ abilities and rights to livable wages and lives.

And you’re welcome here, but I actually engage people–and I do it from all the deep, hellish places I have personally lived in and/or studied like hell from to inform myself about. I’m earnest and I care, and I think being flippant about serious stuff can contribute to the hell for others. So I engage. If you weigh in here, I’m quite liable to weigh back. And always, always FOR us building a more compassionate and livable world for everyone, and not just a precious few. I’d welcome anything you have to share toward that!

For a few seconds, I felt self-righteous in my anger. Self-righteousness, however, always is a good sign that I’ve strayed way off my path, so I slowed down and began to mull it all and why I lowered that boom in the first place, and I spent some of last night and a good deal of today deep in that space. For starters, my FB wall is akin to my home, not a college classroom. For the latter I open spaces that let students speak their minds and questions, believing that to be the best tactic for getting them to think hard about their values and choose them more deliberately. Students, I believe, need to become themselves, rather than a version of parents or teachers or authorities. The only rule I set up is that we will show compassion to every person we encounter, dead or alive, no matter how much we might disagree with them (him/her, if you prefer the grammatically correct pronoun for the referent “person”). It’s a good way to keep discussion civil, but lively, and disagreements useful for showing us the deep underbellies of our surface statements and our values and givens. Students are making the commitment to educate themselves, though, and people in public seldom do that anymore. The level and depths of our potential conversations in a classroom are far deeper and more complex than elsewhere, because willful ignorance is parading hand in hand with outright ugliness these days, especially toward those who have the least or who are most assailed. I’m not here to serve as an educator of people who don’t work to educate themselves, though, and I get worn out when I have to do it.

Lowering the boom, as I did, however, and especially in such a long, long post—not at all typical for most people’s FB comments—was a waste of energy, spirit, and spit. It put my anger onto the page, but was not particularly effective writing (and I even showed great disdain for a slew of politicians as well as any plump felines!). I wasn’t trying to convince this man of anything, but simply trying to address the lack of compassion that underlies such legislation and throw-away comments. I wasn’t trying to make myself feel better, but simply trying to put words to hell on earth. I simply do not know how to do enough to change this current bottom floor of hell for people who have far less than I do. Most days when I go to town I wind up giving all the cash I have away to people who are homeless and hungry and desperate: it’s next to nothing anyway, and only helps them for a short time and me not at all, because I’m anguished over the millions more I can’t help even a little. For decades, too, I have voted for the lesser of two evils in election after election, hoping for some trace of compassion in elected office, and have been dismally disappointed every time.

For all but four years of my life I have also listened to a slew of Christians judging others with the meanest versions of the Bible they can lay their hands on, and this has gotten far more virulent since 2001, and I have prayed and prayed for some more people with the spirits of all kindly souls to show up: many have done so, enough even that now I quote the Bible quite frequently when people are using it as a weapon and I find myself well-companioned in withstanding their ire. For as long as I have been on this side of the ‘age of accountability,’ then, I have done all I personally know how to do, including say hot things when people are being mean on purpose. Not one whit of it is nearly enough, and some days anymore I get so weary with those failures that I could—and do—weep. That was true yesterday for the news that Wisconsin Republicans are attacking those with the very least among us yet again.

So I made my post, I wept, I worked and gave a little, and then I came back to a snippy FOX News-like charge on my post that people have to contribute if they want to collect food stamps. And then I just, to be frank, lost it. And I lowered the boom on the commenter’s unsuspecting head. Almost nobody expects earnest and sincere on social media. Flippant and soundbyted are the rules of the game. I consider soundbytes to be the death knell of deep, careful thinking or conversing together over hard issues, and thus to be the tolling death knells of a good deal of what is still good in the world. I like flippant when no one is being targeted and detest it when someone is (even Wisconsin Republicans). But I burn to the last grieving cell to see any soul assailed while here, and so I failed in my own quest to not show disdain for another, to not opt for deficits of compassion no matter what. No matter what.

I have a private apology to write tonight to the commenter on my wall. He may not read it or respond. I will not say I am sorry for the substance of what I said. I will not apologize for feeling anguished for those who are hurting because of the hateful legislating that passes for public policy today. I will not apologize for my tone or even for hot words, because if ever there were an issue that needs such responses now, this is one of them! But I will say that I am sorry I spoke in the tones of disdain, and that my wall—as with my house—needs to be open to hear other people with whom I disagree, and if he wishes to explain further his understanding of all this, I would welcome the exchange. And I will try to really listen beyond the soundbytes, and to learn.

I am struck by this: No matter how hard any of us try to be part of the good, part of the solutions, part of the love that is possible, it is easy to fall down and miss the ditch for which we were aiming by a country mile. It is worth pausing when we realize we have done that, if for no other reason than to see what guidance can be gleaned for the abysses just ahead. And beyond that I feel only one thing: dear God (all gods, I’m no longer picky, simply can’t afford to be, because way too many people’s Gods right now are murdering other people willnilly from one round side of the globe to all the others): please, please help us to find a way to care for ALL among us, bar none, and to leach disdain from our beings so thoroughly that it no longer presides. But, even more than that, please comfort those who are hungry and wounded and scared and without a home or healthcare or the basic necessaries of life tonight. Please comfort them first. And last. And all the in-betweens. Please help those who genuinely need it first, and then please help the rest of us to know how we can better help, too.

One step forward, two steps back. The road to being fully human and less of a dead weight on the rest of the species is a rocky, stutter-stepped one, and I have further to go tonight than I did yesterday.

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