For some people, seeing someone in need makes them say, "That person is lazy." When I see someone in need I think, "But by the Grace of God there go I."
I put a similar statement on Facebook this morning and have left it there all day, watching the comments. I expected something about "personal responsibility" but it never came. It may yet.
I've been thinking a lot about this in the last few months. People are so rabid about their opinions that it's hard to find the truth, the bottom line, the meaning, somewhere underneath the emotion. I've been trying to strip it away in my mind, and get down to the base thought.
Of course, I only have access to my own thought process, so that's the only place to begin. I realized some time ago that I feel compassion because I partially know how tenuous "good times" and "bad times" are. It's so easy to slip from one to the other. When I see someone who needs something - food, shelter, a dream, whatever - I can see myself in that situation. Maybe I've never been in that situation, maybe I have and found a way out, but regardless I know it's a possibilty. It could happen. To me.
Ultimately, it's selfish to want safety nets because you might need them. That's selfish, but it goes beyond that. I can imagine how it would feel to need something and have no way of getting it. I know how it feels to need to know how to do something and you don't know and have no one in your world who can teach you.
I've come to believe this baseline thought process is at the root of many divisive issues. Can you ever imagine yourself in need - of anything - lacking something and not knowing how to find it? That "need" might be food or shelter, or it might be something less tangible. If you can imagine yourself needing something - and not knowing how to get it, and having no one to help you get it - it colors your perception of those you see who are in need of one sort or another.
If your experience does not allow for that circumstance - of ever having a need that you don't know how to fulfill - it may not be something you can imagine. And maybe if you can't even imagine having a need and no way to fill it, it's easier to expect everyone to pull themselves up by their boot straps and take personal responsibility. Because it's what you would do so it seems completely natural to you - not easy, but natural. And it seems the only logical course of action.
Unfortunately, some people can't even see that as an option, much less do they know how to get there. A friend mentioned today that she was reading a book where the writer said the outward needs were symptoms of much larger needs and when people feel "whole" they're better able to address the other needs. I think there's truth in that.
I believe in personal responsibility for all of us, but also believe that being part of a "society" means taking some responsibility for the whole. I'm not sure what that looks like, but I know the fact that I can imagine being in need myself and how it feels makes me want to find a way.