Friday, February 13, 2009

Seeing Ourselves in Another Life

I've discovered that being largely housebound can be dangerous for the pocketbook. Unfortunately, the internet makes it easy to shop, without setting foot outside the house.

I am not prone to excessive spending, thank goodness. I have limited myself to some clothes I actually needed and some Avon that I will use. Tonight a package arrived that included a couple of more pair of thermals. And, just in time, because it's cold here tonight.

But I can see the danger if one were looking at a prolonged period of being alone with the net and a credit card for amusement.

I'm watching Diane Sawyer's "Hidden America" and it's bringing back so many memories of covering stories in Eastern Kentucky. When I lived in Lexington and worked for a TV station there we would occasionally go into Eastern Kentucky for stories.

Before that job I knew some fellow college students who were from the region, and I didn't understand their lives, although they were not all that different from my own in many ways. I could have been much kinder than I was. Don't we all feel that way at some point? That we could have done better. Maybe it's only me, but I can pinpoint dozens of times in my life when I had the opportunity to be kinder, gentler, more gracious, and failed.

While I had that job I spent a lot of time at the home of a man who had "escaped" a few miles toward the west and would only occasionally talk about his past. He was the best friend of my boyfriend and we would spend weekends together at his home. Forest was forever kind and generous with what he had and you could tell he had worked hard to get it. He never took it for granted, and I understood why. I still take nothing for granted and I bet he doesn't either.

When we would be in the region, I could easily spot the similarities to where I had grown up in Western Kentucky. There were places, homes, and families, that were the same as what we saw in Eastern Kentucky. But it wasn't as pervasive and there wasn't coal mining to fuel the ongoing cycle. But there were plenty of similarities to give the feeling of "but by the grace of God, there go I." I still have that sense whenever I see these sorts of stories.

I was blessed to grow up with a mother who valued education. She wanted me to get an education and did everything she could to facilitate it. I got a college degree and a job as a result. And I found a way to make a life for myself. And I'm grateful. Every day.

But I never forget how precarious such things are. I know people who are smarter than me who didn't find a way to make a life for themselves. It was not because of a lack of desire on their parts, but because they didn't have a support system of family and friends, or because they zigged when they should have zagged, or because they made a seemingly insignificant decision that had serious repercussions and they never recovered. And they weren't blessed with someone like Greg in their lives who has always been a tremendously positive force in my life - always supportive and kind and encouraging - who daily brings a different perspective to life and how it can be lived.

I'm always mindful that if being unable to make a decent life happened to others it could happen to me. After all, none of us is all that different from another. I go through my days feeling like I lead a charmed life because I have all I need and some of what I want. It's not that I don't want more security, but I know how precious any semblance of normalcy is.

Maybe if you've never witnessed such things, or known people who are fighting to hold on to the most basic of necessities, you don't think about these things. I can remember the bathroom being installed in the home where I grew up. I can remember bringing in coal for the heating stove that warmed the whole house. I can remember listening to stories of hard times, and knowing that despite what people would have you believe, hard work did not always keep those at bay.

I was very lucky - we were never hungry, and we were never living in squalor - but others were. However, there was alcoholism and abuse in my world, as there were in many people's. If you haven't lived with it, you can't understand it. Sorry, but you just can't. And no matter how it's explained to you you just won't get it. Not because you don't want to understand, but because words cannot describe it sufficiently.

It breaks my heart to see people struggling with such basic needs like food. It is a disgrace that anyone in this country is hungry. Ever. Maybe if you've never seen people hungry, through no fault of their own, it's easy to say they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When you've seen it's not that people choose those lives, but that those lives happen to them, it becomes a different story.

Maybe only when you realize it could be your story do you feel any compassion. Maybe that, in a nutshell, is the distinction between the liberal mindset and the conservative one. Maybe those of us who can see ourselves in that place, with those difficulties, feel a need to fix it. It's not altruistic, it's self-protection. We're frightened of what it means for us if that exists for anyone. Maybe conservatives can't imagine themselves in those circumstances and it's easy to point out the trail of bad decisions, not understanding that sometimes there isn't a good decision to be made.

I think I'll go say another prayer of Thanksgiving now, followed by one of entreatment.
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Anonymous said...

"Maybe it's only me, but I can pinpoint dozens of times in my life when I had the opportunity to be kinder, gentler, more gracious, and failed."--no, but it is your humility that separates you from the rest of us--who scowl and crush with no remorse. Brilliant post Patsy! Glad I found your blog, can update my reading list now.

Patsy Terrell said...

Thanks for your kind words, Clay. I'm so glad to have you reading along. And it's probably not dozens of times, but hundreds of times. I was just being gentler with myself than with others, so don't give me too much credit. Thanks for your comment and thoughts.