I consider myself fairly self-aware. I consider myself an accepting person, who is slow to judge and celebrates others who are different than me. The folks I judge the most are those that judge others — which I’m actively working to get a handle on. Posts in my Facebook feed that accuse poor people or welfare recipients of being lazy, looking for government handouts and otherwise proclaiming that people with less are less than, make me want to scream. But, the other day my 9-year old called me out on my own prejudice.
I was walking down the street in downtown Milwaukee, WI with my family. As is typical in Milwaukee, we passed a handful of what appeared to be homeless people sitting under shop awnings. One woman, looking disheveled and over-dressed for the warmer weather, looked to me and said, “Excuse me, do you have …” And before she could complete her sentence, I responded, “No, I’m sorry,” with a warm smile as I awkwardly hurried past her. One of my nine-year old twins looked at me with hurt in his eyes and said, “Mom, you didn’t even let her finish her question.”
The pain in his expression haunts me. He expected more of me. More compassion, more empathy, just more. Or maybe he just expected me to offer her the same respect I’d give a well-dressed woman whom I naturally assumed was about to ask me for directions.
What could I say that would rationalize my behavior? I was embarrassed. My husband and I talk often to our kids about the harm in making assumptions about others, about how we have no idea what their life journey has entailed, and how our job is to help as much as we can and leave the judging to God. And here was an opportunity to show them versus just tell them. And I blew it.
Quickly I explained to my son that I did smile politely and didn’t ignore her. He didn’t buy it. And he shouldn’t have. I was wrong, and he called me out on the carpet for it.
His twin brother then went to list the reasons why the woman was probably homeless. She didn’t go to college; she didn’t save her money. His 9-year-old brain was doing what so many of us adults do … try to explain away another person’s hardship. We try to find reasons why their current situation is in their control. Because if we can’t do this — if we can’t point the finger at the person him or herself, then poverty in our country is just too painful to look in the eye.
And maybe we even help out where we can. We donate to good causes or volunteer at the homeless shelter. And while doing so we talk to ourselves about how we’d never be on the other side of the serving line because we A, B and C. Or how the fact that the recipients don’t have food but have a car, or a cell phone, or their kids have a Nintendo DSi proves that they can’t manage money.
And we further justify our belief by reminding ourselves of that one guy we knew who took advantage of the system and those media stories we read. Never mind that we’ve known a few wealthy crooks and read plenty of stories of corporate greed. But, for some reason, in the latter scenario, we are able to accurately conclude that a few cases don’t constitute a trend. But, we use the first scenario as evidence of our stance.
I’ve considered myself too smart to fall into this trap. You see, I know the research that explains why we make these negative assumptions about others’ tough circumstances. I know that we are more likely to attribute other people’s hardship to their own internal, controllable characteristics (laziness, bad decisions, etc.) and dismiss any situational variables at play (down economy, childhood trauma, etc.). This is the called the fundamental attribution error for those who care. But, when it comes to ourselves, we attribute our failures to external circumstances outside of our control (e.g., I lost my job due to a down economy) and our successes to our internal characteristics (e.g., I make a good living because I went to college and work hard). This tendency is referred to as the self-serving bias.
I believe we do this, among other reasons, because it protects us. If we didn’t oversimplify poverty in America (e.g., make it about those who work hard versus those who are looking for a handout), the situation would be too painful for us to face. And we’d be compelled to exit our comfort zones to do more. Our biased explanations of our own successes and other’s failures make us feel safe because they confirm that the situation the Milwaukee woman is in can’t happen to me. Because I’m just better than that. I work harder; I’m smarter; I’m just more than. To acknowledge that so much of where we are in life is the luck of the draw, is God knowing we couldn’t handle the alternative, or that, in reality, so many of us are only 10 paychecks away from a homeless shelter would be too scary. So we hide behind our biases. It’s simply safer there.
And that day, walking in Milwaukee with my family, I went to that safe place. I wish I could do it over. I wish I would have stopped, let her finish her sentence, and gave her some cash if that’s what she wanted. I really don’t care what she uses it for. You see, rationalizing keeping my $5 by saying she’ll only buy alcohol, drugs or whatever with it is, once again, hiding behind our fear and making us feel better about claiming we are just better people. I’m not her judge. I can’t choose her behavior, but I can choose mine. And I should have listened; I should have reached out. I should have modeled this compassion, this basic human-to-human interaction for my children.
And I will next time. And my boys and I will talk about why going to college and saving money are important, but they guarantee nothing. Because in this life we have no guarantees about comfort or material security. We’ll talk about God’s grace having nothing to do with material abundance. And we won’t talk about why we are better than she is or why her situation is of her own doing. And I’ll show them care and compassion by being respectful and offering what I can. No, $5 won’t change her life. But matching my actions to my words in front of my children changes both me and them. And it’s the little changes that add up to make a big difference.