In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Collette Pichon Battle spoke of our collective moral obligation to support our community’s most vulnerable members, and the collapse of the systems that are — theoretically — designed to provide that support. She said:
“So the structures and the laws of our country do not work for the least of us. In fact, they create and marginalize people. They create vulnerability, and then we blame people for that vulnerability by saying something about their own individual acts. What we witnessed in Katrina was not a series of poor choices by individuals. We witnessed the breakdown of a system.”
Many faith-based social justice teachings include a theological emphasis on a “preferential option for the poor,” which calls out the biblical imperative to tend to those among us with “the least.” What I like best about these teachings, other than their focus on those who have been marginalized, is that they call to action. It’s not enough to send “thoughts and prayers.” We must also, as the African proverb tells us, “move our feet.”
Of course, the commitment to care and compassion for our community’s most vulnerable members is not exclusive to any particular faith teaching, and many people who practice no faith at all are called to provide meaningful support to those among us who need it most.
Nevertheless, as Battle succinctly posits, many people we know attribute the struggles of the marginalized to some character deficit, or a series of poor choices.
Psychologists have termed this attribution of unfavorable circumstance to personality or dispositional deficits over situational imperatives as the “fundamental attribution error.” When we make this error, we tend to over-emphasize character in explaining a situation (for example saying someone made a stupid choice) and under-emphasize the environmental forces that created the situation (which may, in fact, have been that they made a stupid choice from a range of really shitty options.)
In my line of work, we see those shitty options more clearly: someone gets laid off, and they have to decide whether to buy food, or pay rent, or pay their utility bill. Something will go unpaid — it’s just a matter of which something.
In his writings, Father Greg Boyle implores us to seek “a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
I’ve written about systems failure before, but that’s not what interests me today. What interests me today is the opportunity to stand in awe, and maybe the chance to pray with our feet.
I’m a runner. I have the privilege of paying to participate in footraces and giving up a few hours on a Saturday to do my best. On the course, there are always people cheering the effort; and the end of most of these races, literally everyone who participates gets a medal, their name called over the PA system, and lots of delicious snacks to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit — the accomplishment of something hard.
But here’s the thing: if we, as a society, understood the particular version of “hard somethings” survived by our neighbors in poverty, we would erect monuments. Seriously, we would build them statues in city parks.
I’m not talking about ten miles on a Saturday in expensive, flashy race gear. I’m talking about ten miles A DAY, just to stay alive, shuffling from agency to soup kitchen to shelter to government office and hearing “no” at every place. I’m talking about a man with frostbite so bad his fingers will atrophy, whose referral for amputation was denied by Medicaid because his fingers will fall off on their own. I’m talking about physical abuse before a child can even walk. I’m talking about sexual assault and trafficking. I’m talking about living in a car with a cancer diagnosis because the last round of medical bills wiped out all savings and then some. I’m talking about exploitation. And yeah, I guess I’m talking about systems that deny support as a matter of course and four-week waits to sit down with a human being to explore options for support.
And maybe I’m talking about you.
Imagine the very first message you received as an infant was that you are a burden. Imagine that message compounding over time, as your parents, siblings, and extended family confirm every chance they get — through words or actions — that you are to blame for something or everything that’s gone wrong. Imagine perfect strangers making jokes at your expense and calling you worthless, without understanding either your history or your options. Imagine walking down the street and passers-by avoiding eye contact with you, or crossing the street to avoid you. How long, exactly, would it take to internalize that message? To give up entirely?
For three people in our little community, the answer to the question of when to give up entirely has already come in the first months of 2022, and that answer was “now.” These souls, who were by any objective measure making progress toward their own self-actualization, decided that ending things forever was a preferable alternative to living one more day with the shame of having lived through things most of us cannot even imagine someone surviving.
The question for most of us is not whether we’ve been complicit, but how we’ve been complicit in compounding that internalized message of worthlessness for the most vulnerable among us.
I know I sound righteous and indignant, but I need you to know that I am no exception. I’ve uttered the words “I can’t deal with this today” about someone in crisis. In elementary school, I dressed up as a “bum” once for Halloween, which fills me with so much shame I almost can’t type it here. I’ve avoided eye contact, avoided deeper conversation, avoided telling someone that they are loved.
Not whether, but how.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we actually erect monuments, or hand out survival medals to people. And in this moment, I’m feeling cynical about our ability — even as a collective — to enact change by lobbying our elected officials to ameliorate our pathetic systems of support (but bear in mind, if you don’t listen to us now, legislators, my memory is long and I’m quick to vote).
So what am I suggesting?
I’m suggesting that we, all of us, reduce our own fundamental attribution error. Understand that we don’t understand. Humanize our fellow humans, especially those who are marginalized, loathed, and abandoned. Do a little better, every day. Increase our sense of awe.
Erase the lie that we have no responsibility to our most vulnerable community members.
So that they stop erasing themselves.