One More Thing

Sharon June 25th, 2008

I wrote my last post, and I went off to hang laundry, and I got to thinking that it sounded wrong to me – that I made the post sound too much like I was talking about far away people who are not me.  And that bothers me.  So I thought I’d stop what I was going for a minute and correct that.

 I grew up mostly in a town with strong, strong class divisions.  There was a wealthy section (really wealthy) in Beverly (Bevery Hills is actually named after the wealthy section of Beverly and a much more working class section.  Guess which side I lived on?  And when I was in middle school, going to the school that had most of the working class kids, I was tracked in among the very bright, college bound, lots of potential kids.  And by the time I got to high school, where they merged the working class bright kids with the wealthy bright kids and edited some out,  most of those very bright kids from my side of the tracks (literally)  weren’t in the top tier, the ones headed to any college but the community ones or maybe UMass.  It wasn’t because they got less smart – they were still incredibly bright and talented.  But in some cases, they didn’t have parents to advocate for them to keep them “on track” and in some cases, they fucked up.  Maybe because they were fuckups, or maybe because the pressure of being seperated out from the people in your neighborhood or your class was hard. 

I found it so – my family has a lot of education but was economically struggling most of my childhood, and lived mostly in working class neighborhoods growing up.  We tended to have much more education than our neighbors, but the same economic problems.  Most of my family worked in human services, teaching or doing social work or doing other low-paying but slightly higher status jobs than the truck drivers and fishermen and plumbers who owned the houses around us.  And the lure of the neighborhood, and of the class culture around us was strong – these were the kids we played with and our friends.  It was hard being seperated out from them -  hard because other kids made it hard, of course, and made you pay a price,  and hard for reasons far too complicated to articulate when you are kid, reasons of class and culture and belonging that I still struggle to fully articulate.  I never made it to Professor, in part, I think, because I never could see myself as a Professor, never could imagine myself in that world, with all of its class and cultural connotations.  I know some people who crossed that boundary quite successfully, but I wasn’t one of them.

I was a fuckup myself, so long that I’m embarrassed to tell y’all – it isn’t like it stopped in high school.  I was lucky – I was bright and articulate enough that teachers let me go, gave me decent grades I didn’t deserve, helped me explain my screw ups enough to get into good colleges and get enough scholarship money to go.  I was lucky in college and graduate school – good teachers thought I was worth helping even when I fucked up again and again.  I got the education and the critical thinking skills I have because all along in the process, people gave me more credit and help than I deserved.  Professors gave me books, helped me get grants, and put up with the fact that I was often deeply ambivalent about the work I was doing and my place in it, and that that ambivalence often played out badly, for reasons I didn’t understand.  And they forgave me because they thought I was worth forgiving – and I’d like to think that’s true of almost everyone, that it was true of the people who didn’t get that extra boost.  They were worth forgiving too – they just never found anyone to do it.

Had I had just a little less grace from other people, just a little less kindness, just a little less capacity to pull things out at the last minute, had otherd gotten a tiny bit more frustrated with me, I doubt I would be writing this now.  Or perhaps I would, but as a different person, from a wholly different set of experiences.  One of my high school teachers pulled me aside when I was a freshman, and I was failing his class – simply because I wasn’t doing the work. He told me he was going to pass me anyway, and that he didn’t expect gratitude, but he did expect me to do what it takes to get of our town and go do something else.  It is, of course, trite beyond bearing to say “we have to get out of this town, it will destroy us” but sometimes there’s some truth in trite beyond bearing.  The thing is, I was boosted, all the way, to getting to the point where I could understand energy issues, to get to the point where I could have a life in which I had time and energy and understanding to cut back my consumption, above all, to a point where I could see the wider world from a different perspective.  Some of it was my doing, of course.  And some of it was the grace and mercy of others. 

So another answer to the question of why I feel sorry for people who consumed too much and screwed up their own finances is this – I could easily be them. I made stupid mistake after stupid mistake in my life, and generally speaking, I wasn’t punished for them.  People wanted to help me and did.  I usually didn’t get justice – I got mercy.  I understand the temptation of justice, and the sense that one doesn’t have energy to care about the sufferings of the fortunate – and I also understand that sometimes perfect justice doesn’t get you better results than a more merciful approach.  I’m guilty of asking for too much justice myself, and forgetting that I too got the benefits of mercy – and that I can’t see that I’d be more useful to the world if I’d gotten only what I really deserved.

I guess that’s why as the energy crisis explodes on the rest of us, I’d like to advocate for mercy for those who don’t yet fully understand.  Maybe it won’t be forthcoming in the world of creditors or government support, but there’s no reason for the rest of us to dispense justice.  By all means, feel sorriest for those who have the least.  But sympathy and kindness are not small things to be rationed out by droppers, only to those perfectly deserving – they should be ladled out and poured from buckets and flow out of us like rivers.  Any scarcity of kindness is artificial – and far too many things are growing scarce for us to have artificial shortages of generosity.


25 Responses to “One More Thing”

  1. Verde says:

    Wow, what you have described bears a lot of similarity to my own story.

  2. Three Herbs says:

    What an excellent post!

    It takes grace to recognize mercy. Thank you.

  3. MissyM says:

    Part of the “show mercy” is exactly what you’re doing… TALKING about it.

    Many people take this information and hoard it… either afraid they’ll be seen as crackpots or afraid somebody else will ‘get ahead’ and have it better than they will.

    I, for one, appreciate your mercy and am trying to share it daily. (I think most people know I am a crackpot, so what the heck)

    And your post as a whole… wonderful. I sent it my youngest (20) who has experienced much of the same “grace” but I don’t know yet if he knows it.


  4. Kiashu says:

    “So another answer to the question of why I feel sorry for people who consumed too much and screwed up their own finances is this – I could easily be them. I made stupid mistake after stupid mistake in my life, and generally speaking, I wasn’t punished for them. “

    Since I was the one who said I didn’t have much sympathy, I can respond… in all honesty, I have consumed too much in the past and screwed up my own finances. But it’s my fault. My failures are my own and I expect no sympathy for them; my successes, too, are my own and I expect no praise for them.

    I have no sympathy because while I know how easy it is to do dumb things, it’s just as easy to do smart things.

    What I do to or for myself I expect neither praise nor blame for; what I do to or others should be praised or blamed.

    I choose to focus my sympathy on those who have the least in the world, the impoverished classes. The middle classes don’t need my sympathy, they feel sorry for themselves enough already.

  5. Sharon says:

    I think one of the things we do to or for others is decide how to judge them – and we can do so harshly – we can say things like they already feel sorry enough for themselves, which I do think is a harsh judgement and almost certainly not universally true – or we can not. When we say we don’t have to feel sympathy, that makes it sound like we’re reserving judgement – but we’re not – we’re deciding whose pain counts. My suggestion is not that we keen the world, but that we recognize that pain counts even when we’re stupid – that pain is still always pain, and it is real and it counts. Sure, devote your money and energies to those most deserving. But I don’t think it costs us anything real to sympathize with our neighbors who are feeling economic pain, even if they are idiots, who deserve their suffering. Because sometimes *we’re* idiots who deserve our suffering, and whether we expect kindness from others or not, it has value.


  6. Cath says:

    This is a really great post — I feel the debate on these critical issues lacks compassion — surely one of the things we’ll need most in the times ahead.

  7. Robyn M. says:

    There’s a game that’s played sometimes in the birthing & parenting world, I guess it could be called “you don’t deserve your pain.” In this game, someone points out that because others are suffering worse than person X, then person X has no right to their pain (and, by extension, to any sympathy, empathy, or even consideration). Usually this starts something like, “Well, I can’t even get pregnant, so you have no right complaining about having a disappointing birth” and typically escalates over several exchanges to mothers in third world nations with infants starving to death in their arms.

    I’ve never been comfortable with this game, either in the mommy circles, or places like this community. Why does someone else’s pain, someone else’s difficulties, negate the genuine pain and difficulty of others? To attempt to understand another person’s situation is one of the most basic kindnesses, and basic starts to human interaction, that we have. It’s not vapid idealism, either. Perhaps the middle class has been, roundly, stupid–I’m not sure I could or would dispute that. But withholding any ability to sympathize with them effectively removes the best route we have to helping them, or showing them a different way to adapt and live. And whether true or not, playing the “you don’t deserve your pain” game makes us look like judgmental assholes.

  8. Susan in NJ says:

    This and the previous post are very good and thought-provoking. This is a very complicated subject and I think it’s important to approach as non-judgmentally as possible. I’ve been reading “Collapse” which (especially in the chapters on the Norse in Greenland) really makes you think about how cultural norms and expectations that promote success, prosperity or even survival under one set of circumstances can hide, create or promote a systemic blindness if circumstances change.

    My work brings me into frequent contact with people whose economic lives are spriraling out of control (or who are balancing precariously to avoid that spiral), usually percipitated by something beyond their control and frequently unjust, unfair or downright illegal, but often complicated by their own choices before and after. I’ve certainly dealt with a lack of critical thinking even in well-educated well-favored folk practicing a profession that one would think required critical thinking and also counseled people whose preceived need for a particular outcome (immediate cash to keep a business running, for instance) blinded them beyond all reason to the consequences of their choice (hideous negative amortization mortgage on a home).

    On an individual level, the types of mercy you mention can be life-changing. I know I’ve been the recipient of some of that and remain grateful; one of my benefactors told me that all he asked was that if in the future I had an opportunity to extend a similar mercy, that I do so. I keep that in mind always.

  9. Heather Gray says:

    Good post, Sharon.

    Susan in NJ, I agree with you completely!

  10. Joanna says:

    I think we’d be remiss in not noticing how many people have also been, for all intents and purposes, brainwashed. There are corporations out there designed to do nothing but encourage people to consume and discourage them from thinking. These corporations by and large have all the advantages – the time, the money and the scientific studies – to do this with incredible effectiveness. I can’t find it in me to feel too judgemental of people whose brains have succumbed to a systematic program of influence away from reason and logic. It’s not like someone was handing them a rational, well thought out menu of choices and they chose stupidly due to greed. The reality of what’s happening has been clouded at every turn! Even people like me who feel like we have at least a partial clue about all this _frequently_ doubt our sanity…

  11. Lynda says:

    VERY well said.

  12. In the simplest of terms, pain doesn’t scale.

    If something hurts, it hurts, plain and simple. In the midst of grief and sorrow, all we feel is that horrible ache inside, and that ache doesn’t seem to come in small, medium and large.

    People overwhelmed by difficult circumstances are hurting, whether they created those circumstances through errors of judgement or just found themselves in them through bad luck. Sometimes, knowing you created the mess you’re in just makes it all hurt even more as guilt is added to the burden.

    When I have been in the midst of a troublesome spot, hearing someone else acknowledge that that the mess I find myself in must be a really rotten place to be is a comforting thing, even – or perhaps especially – when I know that they are choosing not to add “… even if you did bring this on yourself.”

    What is that saying? Speak kindly, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

    We just can’t always know how the messes came about, and even if we do, during the time of immediate crisis it serves no useful purpose to discuss it – that’s for later, when we are trying to take learnings from the mess to ensure we don’t get into them a second time. In the midst of the mess, all that is important is how to get out of it.

    The work done by Sharon and those like her is a great gift to the world: the information shared here helps the people who are already listening to see ways of avoiding the messes, and later, when those not yet listening find themselves in a mess and need to get out, much of what has been written here will be useful in helping them see a way to dig themselves out of the hole.

  13. Stephen Heyer says:

    Hi Sharon,
    Really thoughtful and timely post – thanks.

    I too have enjoyed a much better life and more breaks, help and forbearance from others (and from the Divine) than I in any way deserve. I also have a wonderful lady who is far better than I deserve.

    I agree that once those of us with fortunate lives fully internalize how undeservedly lucky we are it should make us more tolerant of the failings of others, even of others who grabbed more than their fair share when they had the chance. And make no mistake, being born with the right genes for intelligence, the right parents for good upbringing, the ability to work, effectiveness, an attractive personality, an attractive body and being in the right place at the right time is luck, nothing more.

    But I feel we have other duties too, as well as the obvious such as helping those in need, in short, we owe it to the Divine and all the souls who did not score such good lives to make the best of our lives.

    This encompasses a number of less obvious things, but I think that important among them are trying to use the ease, leisure, intelligence and access to information we have been granted to grow into being better people and more developed souls. It also means stopping to notice, enjoy and be grateful for this beautiful world we are so lucky to have and our pleasant lives.

  14. lydia says:

    I posted my similar thoughts in the comment section of your article on feeling sorry for the middle class. My basic premise is that we are all in this together and everyone is to some extent a victim- whether that is from brainwashing, social engineering, bad choices, corporate media propaganda, or whatever. We all need a little tenderness as the song does. Forgive yourself and others, do the best you can now, today with what you have.

    Even if you are not normally prone to being overly compassionate, think about this- if you piss your neighbor off or have a I’m smarter than you attitude, your vege garden may be the first to go in the middle of the night…’s only practical to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer…make nice with your clueless neighbors, if they lose their job and need some extra tomatoes, you need to give them to them………think about it.

  15. As long as my neighbors allow me space to be me, I in turn allow them space to be themselves.

    Don’t tread on mine without permission and I won’t tread on yours without your permission, but here I permit you this at this particular time.

    What does “class” have to do with any of it?

    This is America isn’t it?

    Maybe some would be better suited for a communist state. If that is the case I say move!

  16. [...] yesterday that has really stuck with me. It was a great post for a number of reasons and you should read it but the section that has been churning around in my mind was where she broadly described a period [...]

  17. Corinne says:

    Thanks, Sharon, for a beautiful post.

    I think part of feeling lucky depends on seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. Not everyone does this naturally (and I have spent a lot of time learning to do this better), but trying out different perpectives on a “bad” situation can help.

    Once, we had no hot water in November for three weeks, before they could come repair it. Priority was given to those with no heating. After the first shock, and the learning to adapt with sponge baths, etc., I actually felt really, really lucky, that this was only going to be temporary, unlike for so many others in the world. In the end, “toughing it out” for three weeks wasn’t so hard, and that first hot shower afterwards was appreciated like never before!


  18. Ailsa Ek says:

    I agree. How does it hurt to think charitably about everyone? Money and time you can run out of, but kindness is infinite.

  19. kaat says:

    Sharon, this is a great set of posts, which go straight to the heart of the energy crisis. Alise Ek said: “Money and time you can run out of, but kindness is infinite.” And oil we will run out of, and it is going to come down to kindness: the kindness of the earth in supplying us with free and healthy energy (*), and the kindness of our communities while we adapt to a new kind of life, which is as important as the nature’s kindness for our survival. AS important.

    So how would we react, if at the gate to the new life – a sustainable community – both the mistaken ones and the heartless ones come a-knocking? Do we turn them away and stop preaching our mercy? Do we judge them differently? Or do we let them in and give error and gracelessness a place in our communities all over again? And who are we to judge what is error, what is grace?

    It pays to think in particulars here. I often think of my upstairs neighbor, who goes on a three week vacation and leaves her four old and noisy and inefficient AC’s running day and night. Then fastforward and imagine a refuge of sorts, from global warming, from food riots, etc. She is at the gate and it is up to me to let her in or turn her away. And she says “I still don’t believe in global warming, and you’re all lazy environmentalists, but you preach mercy, and here I am!”

    It’s hard to decide. It’s hard to have mercy, and to forgive mistakes – or trespasses, however you wish to judge the cause of such destructive behavior – that you know might be repeated…

    Thanks, Sharon and commentators, for getting to the heart of this, what it is to be humane, for sticking your neck out.

    (*) though I don’t myself mean to assign an ethical purpose to nature, many others do, and that’s fine.

  20. kaat says:

    I’m sorry, my last comment was already so long. But I thought a little more and wanted to ask this:

    Could it be that mercy comes with a price?

    The frequent idea in the comments above and Sharon’s entry, and in many people’s thinking – mine too – is that mercy and forgiveness are infinite. They are. But can they turn out, in some cases (like my neighbor’s?) be a mistake?

    “Justice” is often thought about as something mechanical: a computer, following legal “codes”, could expend it. It’s an impoverishment to think of justice like that. Why should we oppose it with mercy?

  21. MEA says:

    I will admit, I enjoy a fair amount of rightious (IMO) anger at people who seems to persist in doing stupid, wasteful things, esp. when it’s obvious to me that they are just digging themselves in deeper and deeper, esp. when I’ve tried, nicely, to point out and to lead them to see just how stupid they are being (I refer, of course, to those members of my family to just don’t seem to get it. And the less I love and care about the people invovled, the less my anger is. However, none of that stops me from caring about them, and feeling sorry for them, and trying, as best I can, to help them. I’m petty enough that what I’d love to hear from them, is “Wow, we shouldn’t have laughed at you. You were RIGHT, you were a GENIUS!” (Ah, the fat, relentless ego.)

    However, if I get my ego stoked or no, even in the middle of great frustration (which is, I think, the root cause of my anger) I can still feel sympathy — for them and for everyone else who is trying to cope. The pain of hunger, or seeing your child stave, isn’t mitigated by memories of what you squandered.

    About 10 years ago, a 14 year old Liberian refugee wrote the following in an essay for school, describing her journey as they walked three years to reach a camp. “We had no shoes or slippers for our feet. We ate what we found or what was given to us. It was hard for the rich, becuase they had never tasted bitterness, and seeing them made my heart heavy/”

    It was hard for her, too. She saw both her parents die, as well as her sibblings. When I knew her, she was with a woman she called her aunt, though there was no family connection. In return for being allowed to go to high school (unlike most Liberain girls, she has attened school (a very good school) from ages 6-10) she did all the housework and cooking (and washing, in the bathtub) for the aunt, herself, and three children, and looked after the children after school and in the evening. (I knew the children; two were brain danaged, one was mentally unbalancedm, and all need constant supervision.) She’d traded sex for food from the time she was 11, and was very greatful her “aunt” was a good women who didn’t expect that of her. All this, and the sufferings of the rich only moved her to sorrow.

    (BTW, she got very poor mark for the essay because the teacher marked her down for such things as saying “shoes or slippers” because people don’t wear slippers outside and “tasted bitterness” becuseyou don’t eat feelings. I thought it was brilliant, and kept a copy. The girl in question trained as a home health aid, and then as an X-ray technician. Last I heard of her, she was on her own, caring for one of the children. She didn’t keep in touch, but I hope she’s alright.)

    I think that like love, sympathy isn’t limited to a certain amount within each person, and we have to ration out to those we think deserve it.


  22. Pangolin says:

    Ah luck. Imagine being on the other side of that line that you speak of. Imagine haveing parents who were intelligent and skilled but also alcoholic and exhausted in turns.

    Imagine going through life seeing people that had supportive parents that coached them through school and purchased everything they needed. Kids who didn’t have your intelligence and didn’t work as hard but also didn’t have to work night jobs to pay the rent. Didn’t even really have to cook their meals or wash their own dishes.

    I dropped out of high school simply because it was a social pond of piranhas. With the help of a girlfriend I got into college but then she lost interest. Eventually I dropped out of college due to simple lack of mentoring in the rough spots. I wasn’t brave enough to attempt the hardest classes in engineering or biology despite the fact that I was an avid science fiction reader. I had enough to juggle just to be in school.

    I dropped out, worked at this and that, got another girlfriend, married and eventually secured enough resources to go back to college. This time I was within one semester of success when I was struck down by an illness.

    If you’re sick in college they don’t fight to get you through but rather encourage you to drop out for the semester and restart. Your debt, however, doesn’t go away. You don’t really get to start again.

    After years of climbing a sand slope again and again only to be mocked by those born on the platau of wealth when I slide back down. After years of kicks where the wealthy got cushions. After that last extra humiliation that wasn’t needed.

    The time will come when it will be understood that the law just don’t have the gas to get to the Mcmansions. When that happens a bit of overdue accounting will happen. Not murderous perhaps but coup will be counted.

    Many, many people worked hard their whole lives and were always found wanting when compared to people who barely worked at all. They’re really not happy.

  23. Fairy says:

    I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at

  24. Cool!

    Nice article. Looking forward for more! shows some great piranha videos. Check it out!

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