Friday, August 19, 2011

Downsized? Only in Compassion

During the monthly department meeting at work, someone spoke about the filing fee for opening a new case (custody or visitation, for example) and whether there should be indigent waivers for people who couldn't afford the fee, which is $100. That prompted someone else to say that if a person couldn't afford the fee, they shouldn't be asking for time with their children. This same individual went on to say, in a self-assured tone, "I mean, what's the problem? Any one of us could write a check for $100 right now."

I spoke up while those words were still hanging in the air. "I couldn't. And in this economy, there are a lot of people for whom $100 would be a stretch after paying bills and rent and gasoline."

Our department leader changed the topic quickly. Apparently, even though there was no heat in my words, we don't want the discussion to get personal. I didn't mind. I wasn't looking for a response, but it made me leave the office later that day wondering whatever happened to compassion.

A lot, apparently. In some corners, compassion has been downsized along with wages and benefits.

Lately the cable television show "Downsized" has been generating some comment in Blogville. Remember, we don't watch television in this household. We have no cable, and other than the new season of "This Old House" on PBS, it is unlikely we will turn on the television the rest of the year unless it is to watch a DVD or video. (Well, okay, we might watch some of the World Series. Just saying.) So any discussion about any television series, let alone a cable series, is usually not something I note. But after my good friend Sharon blogged about the show, and noted the opening episode was available online, I sat down and watched it.

What amazed me, now that I have seen the episode, is not the show itself. "Downsized" is "reality television," whatever that phrase has come to mean, and no matter how sanctimonious or critical we may be about "those people" and their choices, the true reality is that we the public enjoy being voyeurs in these peoples' lives and want to be titillated, offended, or appalled. The show hits its mark on that count.

No, what surprised me, and still does as I type this post, were some of the comments that Sharon's sympathy for the show's family (if not their economic choices) drew. She admitted that she had previously been harshly critical of them, but recent events in her own life had made her realize just how rapidly a family's financial stability can turn fragile these days. Sharon made a distinction between the individuals and their choices, and in doing so found a wellspring of compassion for the family.

It is too easy to throw rocks, and lots of them, at this family, but I found myself thinking that they're a lot like any of us. We all struggle with these issues - finances, family - in our own homes. We all make foolish choices from time to time. In all fairness, most of the comments on Sharon's post were sympathetic also. But some of them were harsh. Maybe this show irks us because it comes a little too close for comfort. And maybe because it's a little too close for comfort, it's easier to get shrill and dismissive about the individuals in the show rather than question why there is a market for watching a family's economic gaffes and blunders. As Sharon wisely noted: We are often quick to judge what other families do financially.  Especially in front of cameras.  But, we all make mistakes.  Thankfully for my family, we aren't doing a reality TV show and airing them for all the world to see.  I air all I want to air here on this blog!

We are often quick to judge. I'm not saying (and I doubt Sharon is too) that everyone, including the "Downsized" family, gets a permanent free pass on economic responsibility. But I do believe that times have been hard for too many for too long, no matter how wisely they budget their money or their lives. Can't pay a filing fee? Too bad, you might not get time with your children for a year or two. Made some foolish purchases and then your business tanked? Tough luck that you didn't see that coming.

To me, it's only a short step from that mindset to "Hungry? Homeless? You should have planned better."

I won't be watching "Downsized" because we don't watch television. Even if we did, I doubt I would watch it. But I really appreciate Sharon for sharing some sympathy for a family that, in the final analysis, looks more like most of us than we all want to acknowledge.


Sue said...

The pressures on all of us are stretching us thin in spirit. We've lost the knowledge that relationships and kindness are what make us rich. We need to consciously move from meaness to generosity of spirit,
Thank you, April, for inviting us to the window and helping us see a world beyond our own discomfort.

Sharon said...

I love what Sue just said...the pressures are stretching us thin in spirit...kindness is truly missing in most everything. We are a lost society at this point, and compassion is hard to come by, especially among those who have not yet felt the pain.
I will watch the series, however, not because I have a desire to criticize, but a desire to learn something.

Thanks for posting this, April. You have a wonderful way with words.

P.S. Really? No television? Sounds wonderful! :)!

Jenny Woolf said...

I am shocked at the lack of compassion of your colleague. I'm not clear what her work role is, but should someone like that really be working with troubled families, if they have such a lack of empathy with other human beings? But I don't know anything about her situation, of course. Anyhow, I think your response was very mild.

see you there! said...

I think my compassion is alive and well. I don't understand your co-workers attitude. Seems pretty uninformed.

However, I've only seen 2 or 3 episodes of reality shows and in those cases I'm afraid I didn't feel compassionate at all. The shows felt like somebody was "on the take" along with being fake.

I prefer my own reality to that on tv.


Terri said...

Tonight, I feel like your blog is an oasis. I have not watched the program you refer because we don't have television in our household either, BUT I have just come from a blog where the subject matter was SO judgmental of an impoverished young mother who was seen to be smoking a cigarette...that I flipped and left the FIRST scathing comment I have ever left on a blog. It is so easy to judge from "our little bit" of privilege in this world. Good for you for speaking up.

Alise Marie said...

I would say that 80% of my clients could not afford $100 even at the best of times. I think a lot of people forget that money doesn't equal love or good parenting. It's sad to see that attitude in people, but unfortunately, I see it a lot.