Fault is irrelevant
October 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’m about to resort to a device I often dislike to make a point – I’m going to share an incident from my life. I dislike doing this both because I dislike reliving it, and because I dislike resorting to anecdote. But here we go.
After my mother died, I ended up living alone for several years. I worked odd jobs – I was a terrible carpenter, a poor to middling day laborer, a bouncer in a bar that was always on the verge of being shut down. I worked in a bookstore. I was not particularly well paid for any of these tasks, and I was attending college, so I had pretty substantial expenses – textbooks, tuition, rent, utilities. As a result, I was often in a situation where I had twenty dollars to buy food for an entire month. It was 1991 – the dollar had more spending power than it does now, admittedly, but not so much that you could buy enough food to live for a month with a twenty.
As a result, I often did not eat. There simply wasn’t any money for me to do so. I lost well over sixty pounds one semester – I lost so much weight that when my stepmother came to visit me for some reason, she did not recognize me. Of course, rumors of my being on drugs surfaced to explain the rapid change in my physique and mental state – my mother had died fairly recently, and I’d clearly gone over the edge. It was simply beyond people’s ability to understand that, working minimum wage jobs and whatever crappy under the table work I could scrape up simply wasn’t enough money to cover the necessities of life, and that the constant starvation (you try losing sixty pounds in four months) was far more debilitating than any drug habit I might have wished I had.
If not for a kind teacher who began slipping me money – a five here, a ten there – and buying me food at random moments, I doubt I would have made it through college. He didn’t ask me what was going on, or try and make any judgments about my moral foundation or why I was clearly not doing well. He simply helped me, with nothing in it for him and no chance I’d ever be able to repay him. I never gave him anything.
One week he showed up at my door with two loaves of bread and a huge jar of peanut butter. That was it. It cost him less than five bucks. And if he’d asked, I’d probably have broken someone’s neck in return. He never asked for anything, though.
My point in all of this is that my own family looked for blame. Something was at fault – the idea that I was simply laboring under an unfair system was never even considered. I had to be on drugs or messed up over my mom’s death, because those were causes – you could nod sagaciously at them, and say aha and then walk away. If I were on drugs, well, one might argue that you could get me an intervention but if you chose to just walk away (as they all did) then that was understandable. You can only do so much, after all.
We do this with misfortune and suffering because the alternative is to be aware of how fragile our own position is – at any moment, everything you have and everything you love can be imperiled, your possessions gone, your loved ones taken from you. Your very life is a transitory moment suspended between vast gulfs we are entirely ignorant of – you do not know if you existed before your birth, and you cannot know if you will continue past your death. To accept this fragility is daunting enough – to recognize that everything you may succeed in accomplishing in your life was as much the result of happy coincidences and societal forces as it was your own labor prevents one from even the momentary comfort of the delusion of self-sufficiency. We assign blame and look for fault in order to convince ourselves that we can somehow control the randomness of our day to day lives.
No one deserves it. No one did anything to cause it save those that did it. The only question you should ask is “can I help” and if you’re not willing to do that, then at least don’t make it worse. The pain of another isn’t your cue to go into post-mortem mode, looking over their lives and their choices like the scouts on Monday morning going over the big football game to see how we lost.
Poor people don’t deserve it. The victims of violent crime didn’t do anything to justify it. There’s no magic path through life that you can discover and use to avoid it.