Being compassionate has not come easily for me. I was raised in a very black and white, good versus bad, right over wrong culture. In my family system, who was to blame was the major concern in disciplinary matters. Learning what God determined as right and wrong or good and bad served as the focal point of my religious training. If you did not volunteer to take responsibility for something you did, responsibility was thrust upon you. Judgment followed swiftly, and the punishment was usually quite painful. As a child and an adolescent, this environment and worldview felt unfair and manipulative, but when I challenged the existing system, I was told not to question and to readily accept what I was being taught.
Despite many years of working trying to undo the mental recordings concerning the worldview of black and white, I still struggle with making judgments and seeing things from extremes. At the same time, my wrestling with this black and white view has served as a tool in assisting me in demonstrating compassion, understanding, and acceptance of those who have also endured the harsh judgments and alienation of the right versus wrong culture. I always feel pleased when someone describes me as compassionate, or sensitive, or kind, or generous, or accepting, or caring. These descriptions serve as signal that I am making progress in putting the dark world of right versus wrong behind me.
However, this determined transformation has led me to a new perplexing dilemma. The dilemma is learning to accept and live within the paradox of our current culture. How does one live out compassion in a society that increasingly divides itself over matters of blame, fault, and perceived irresponsibility? How do I live a life where I am actively listening and engaged with those whose perspectives are different from mine, all the while seething inside because their view seems so harsh, degrading, and insensitive?
The current government shutdown and Republican efforts to stop the Affordable Care Act serve is an excellent example of my struggle. One of my current jobs is working with those who are seeking full-time employment. Many of these individuals are the long-term unemployed. On an almost daily basis, I listen to heart-wrenching stories of individuals who were successfully employed for the first 20-25 years of their adult life, but now cannot even get considered for a job flipping burgers at the local Wendy’s or Burger King. Because of their struggles finding employment, most are experiencing serious financial problems. Some are experiencing foreclosures on their homes or repossessions of cars. These are new and frightening experiences for these individuals because they never would have dreamed of being in such a place.
Now many of them face even bigger challenges as unemployment benefits run out, while their savings and retirement funds are being used up to survive. These individuals are now applying for food stamps, housing assistance, and free medical care because they no longer have the resources to buy enough groceries, or cover their rent, or renew prescriptions. Today, our society is choosing to brand these once successful, contributing members of our society as moochers, losers, and just plain lazy.
All the while, a group of individuals a thousand miles away delay and defeat programs and services that would assist these unemployed people who are one step from living under a bridge. This is where my compassion and judgment create confusion. I walk and talk with these struggling unemployed and underemployed individuals daily. I see that they are trying to make their way. I experience their pain, their sense of worthlessness, and their lack of hope. At the same time, my judgmental-ness rages at a small group of politicians who say that the people I work with need to stop relying on the government for assistance and support.
My personal belief is that the current logjam in Washington concerning the budget, the debt ceiling, and the Affordable Care Act is not the responsibility of all the politicians in Washington. In my humble opinion, our current fiscal and employment problems lay squarely at the feet of one group in one party in one branch of government.
Yes, this is my judgment and one that I feel is rooted in my compassion for those who struggle. And while my worldview and understanding says I should listen and be accepting of other’s views and perspectives, it is nearly impossible for me to listen. The anger and frustration generated by my own experience and observations tell me these differing perspectives are just plain bull! I feel confused and disoriented, and want to grasp hold of something solid, something that has meaning. Living in this paradox is hard work, and frequently I feel weary…even defeated.
So, day after day, I move about in this state of confusion, struggling to acknowledge and accept the paradox. I wonder at what point do you stand up, and express your view based on the values you hold dear? When do you stand up and demand a higher level of morality and justice? When is it time to say, “I have listened enough, we have talked enough. It is now time to act and to defend those who are being trampled on!”
When is it time? How do I bring clarity to my confusion about demonstrating compassion without making judgments? As a humanistic-existential psychologist, do I not have a responsibility to challenge individuals and groups that hold positions that support racism, favoritism, or indifference to the poor and needy? As a human being, do I not have a responsibility to step out in front of those who are hurting and in pain to protect them from further abuse and harm? When do I say that it is time to stop blaming the politicians and begin doing and acting in a manner that exemplifies beliefs congruent with loving others, caring for others, treating one another with dignity?
When is the time? If the time is not now, when will that time be? I am seek an answer, because I am confused!
— Steve Fehl