Compassion wells up unexpectedly, often with eyes meeting eyes.
The light turns red and lands my car next to the woman holding a cardboard shoebox top, “Anything Helps” scrawled in black. Handing her the muffins I’d planned to give my boyfriend, my eyes meet hers. It’s intentional: I want to see her, show her I see her, be present with her in our brief but personal interaction.
I don’t expect our eyes to simultaneously fill with tears.
“I came here today hoping for some encouragement,” she says, and begins to recite a portion of Psalm 23.
“… He leads me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul…”
The light changes, I blow her a kiss, and she continues…
“… yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow…”
And that’s it.
It happens in restaurants. A well-to-do couple enjoys a homey breakfast at a local diner, charmingly interacts with the young woman waiting on them. Amidst all her goings-and-comings, one of them locks eyes with her in a disarming moment.
She is a real person, but a caricature of every noble, tragic, hardworking waitress, full of the struggle and pain of trying to take care of her family or improve her situation on a waitress’ wages and tips.
The couple is moved enough to give her a generous tip, endorsing her efforts in serving them, and hoping she “makes it.”
What have we accomplished, the charitable couple and I? We’ve seen others in similar situations, from our somewhat more comfortable circumstances. But what did it do, measurably, over time, to make any real difference for the respectable strangers we’ve met?
In the grand scheme of their lives, we’ve done nothing.
They’ve appreciated our very human outflow of charitable expression, of course. In some stretches of life the kindness of a stranger is all that matters. However, what they need is for basic sustenance needs to be met regularly, not to sit and wait for the next kind stranger to come along.
This is not a “give a man a fish” analogy. Or perhaps it is, in modern American terms.
We fund education, in varying levels of quality nationwide. But this is less and less the “Nation of Opportunity” we learned of in fourth grade. There are charts and statistics that paint a picture of the increasing divide between the extremely rich, the sinking middle class, and those living below the poverty line.
Part of what motivates us to dispense situational charity is how easy it’s become to assume that people who struggle are somehow lesser human beings. When we find ourselves interacting with someone very different and we are suddenly struck by their seeming unique nobility, we’re a little awe-struck. When we’re in a position to help, many of us do.
It’s a good quality – there’s a reason why it feels good to help others… but it’s not enough to replace improvements to the system with one-off, sudden expressions of charity.
Some think paying taxes to benefit social programs is forced charity, and they find it revolting. They’d prefer to personally approve of each recipient rather than entrust their hard-earned dollars to faceless government entities. They don’t trust hard-to-understand benefits criteria to analyze and dispense to faceless members of a “needy” class.
Some condemn unions as distasteful and greedy, forcing inflated health and pay benefits for the member workers beyond what they “deserve.” They pity the plight of the employers who are simply engaged in good old-fashioned bottom line competition.
But these perspectives miss the broader realities of how our needs and motivations intersect, instead providing fertile ground for more rigid class divisions and, ultimately, community-destroying policies.
Employers, fully indoctrinated in American capitalistic values, are motivated by increasing profits regardless of the state of the economy. Rather than shifting to a business approach that seeks to maintain a steady, healthy income, they begin to eat away at the livelihoods of their dispensable, impersonal workforces.
Without advocates, workers who are subject to the same challenging economy, rising gas and food prices, are forced to choose between decreased benefits and wages, or unemployment.
This does not bode well for our communities. So many work tirelessly only to live paycheck to paycheck. We cannot achieve better society, affording our individuals the freedom to flourish. When a growing number of individuals are stuck at the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with basic physiological and safety needs threatened, the construct of our society is threatened.
We cannot assume that anyone who is not a high wage-earner is lazy, or deserves to scrape by and eke out an existence. We cannot rely upon situational compassion and charity to “fix” our society, which is currently on a downward trajectory.
If major grocery chain workers left with only the option to strike tomorrow, spend some time thinking about how these people have benefitted your life. Imagine how much worse your community would be without the fairly negotiated wages gained through collective bargaining.
Employers are driven by inflated ideals of capitalism – a fine concept in and of itself, but the hallmark of self-serving, ever-increasing greed in current practice.
The limited balance provided by many functional unions is necessary to keep people and families afloat. It’s more important to support their efforts in these uncertain times than ever before to ensure a steadily improving economy.