Being Human Cuts Both Ways

Apparently, there are individuals who lack the capacity to feel what others feel. The rest of us are typically “touched” to some degree by the plight of others. Typically.

This capacity to experience, to feel - even to the point of suffering - the pathetic lives that others live is what makes us human. This peculiar weakness for another’s weakness, without which a humane society would cease to exist, seems to harden, however, when we feel overwhelmed by needs of our own. I know whereof I speak.

About a month ago, poverty, along with some of the other issues that divide us as a society, disappeared from my radar. Actually, it was the range of my radar that shrank. It wasn’t that I had succumbed to the power of advertising, nor was it due to a desire to give my autonomy a much needed work-out. It wasn’t that I’d suddenly become antisocial or anything like that. What funnelled my sensibilities, what dramatically reduced my field of concern was our 2000 VW Jetta. The band-aid solutions that we had been applying with increased frequency and expense over the last year could no longer conceal the writing on the wall.

A few weeks ago, the rust bucket started coughing up oil. The car was done. It was time to hand over the keys to the auto wreckers and to find an affordable replacement, which, as most of us know, is easier said than done. It’s almost, as they say, a full-time job, which, by the way, is not an image all of us can relate to. Let’s put it this way: Finding another car is like landing a one-month contract position without the health benefits.

If most of us are inclined to be empathetic until our cars break down, that is, empathetic until we ourselves are drawn away (and apart) by our own needs and concerns, then I’m afraid we’re going to have to kiss the dream of a humane society good-bye. The problem represented by a broken car is nothing compared to the multiple challenges that others have, like unemployment, underemployment, and precarious employment, which, when combined with all the other circumstances that often accompany these problems, like poverty, depression, alcoholism, divorce, and custody battles, would seem to spell the breakdown of society and the end of life together.

Have I been projecting my own weakness here? Thankfully, yes. And so I’d like to take this opportunity to express my deep respect and admiration to all those who, despite their own troubles and challenges, maintain their humanity, continue to be empathetic, responsive, neighbourly, and generous with their lives. I’m thinking especially of the single mothers, the job-seekers, the underemployed, the physically and mentally challenged, and all those scratching a living from their OW or ODSP income. Don’t go away. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.

The Poverty and Its Associates - P&A series is being written by Len Van Harten and the posts don't necessarily reflect the position of the London Poverty Research Centre. Len lives in Thorndale, Ontario. He has worked in group homes, in classrooms, and in nonprofit housing. He believes that if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying close enough attention to the world around you.