Now, I’m not suggesting that people are not responsible for the conditions they live in; they are, almost always. Choices that people make lead directly to the conditions in which they live. While a person may not think, “Gee, I want to become a drug addict,” the choice to use substances once can very easily lead to that result. Kids who drop out of high school probably don’t think, “After I drop out, I hope to live on welfare and never afford the things I want,” but again, the choices lead to the result. But the world that these people live in is one in which failure is standard and possibility is unheard of. They lack the social and personal resources to make their lives better. It’s not impossible--we’ve all heard stories about remarkable individuals who rose from poverty to excellence. Some of us even know people like that. But if all a person ever knows is limitation and failure, how do they know what’s possible for them? Human beings can rarely imagine a reality other than the one we live with; we can hardly perceive of the possibility of another way of thinking or being than we do and are. That’s evidenced as much by my relative’s inability to understand the complicated natures of poverty and addiction and the individuals who live in those conditions as it is by those individuals who are unable to change their circumstances.
So, as I thought about this conversation on the drive home, I was angry at people who think of the world and people in overly-simplified terms. I was constructing arguments against their myopic thinking in my head and questioning how to change a person’s stasis (which in rhetoric refers to a person’s definition of the main issues in a debate) because if you argue with a person from a different stasis, you can never come to an agreement. My relative and I were arguing from different stases; His argument was “They want to live like that,” and to counter that argument from the same stasis, I would have had to argue, “They do not want to live like that.” My argument on that stasis would be pretty weak because in many cases, it appears that people to, at some shallow level, want to live like that. Also, my relative likely would have asked, “Then why don’t they decide to live differently?” (you should know that a very strong willpower is assumed universal in this family). To this, what could I reply? “They can’t”? “They don’t know how”? No, that argument could never be convincing. I reject the stasis that this is a problem that is simply a matter of desire and will; my stasis is that poverty and addiction are complex problems that derive from complex problems and merit compassion. My relative and people of a similar mindset, I believe, would not be able to argue convincingly within that stasis. So, the question is how do I change someone’s stasis if they aren’t even aware of it? This is an important question because we as Christians are called to loving-kindness and compassion toward ALL people. Where I’m often comfortable to agree to disagree, the way we treat people is not one of those things. It matters deeply; as CS Lewis knew:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. [. . .] And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners [. . . .] Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (The Weight of Glory).
We must remember that everyone is more that the collection of stereotypes and facts through which we perceive and define them. But how do I convince others of that? I think that the only answer is that God does, that it is He who sees into our hearts and has the power to soften them. So I’m praying for the closed minds and hard hearts in the world tonight. Please pray with me.
982 words, with my insincere apologies.