Admiration and Empathy. Dialogue

Photo by jonas mohamadi on

There are forces that affect us every day of our lives. One is Admiration.

Notice how much effort goes into stressing the differences between us. ‘Look at my Tesla. My Mercedes. Look at how I dress. Check out my handbag – designed by such and such. I live over there, yes, on the hill, above the hoi polloi. I went to Harvard. To Stanford. I dine there – ugh, never will get caught dining at that other place. I can do this, I can do that, and you can’t.’

How we relish the opportunity to show off. To parade our perceived superiority. It’s that narcissism in us, isn’t it? And what a force it is.

But it comes with risks. One such risk is that with the affirmation of what we have or have earned, if not careful, we may open the door for the slow erosion of empathy.

The more we may feel admired, the more we may believe we are special and unique.

And, indeed, we may be, but so are those who’re doing the admiring. They, too, are unique, in their own way. They, too, have their own power, even if not expressed fully for lack of effort or other circumstances.

The person who’s being admired has made an assertion of their power and yet, in between the layers of such assertion, another statement may have been made, ‘I am better than you,’ which leads to the slow erosion of empathy.

Such erosion is insidious, barely perceptible at first, but if not checked may quickly become pronounced.

Where I live, I go for walks in a business district adjacent. There is one beggar I’ve come across often as he sits cross legged on the sidewalk, a cup for donations in front. Now and then I dropped money in his cup but never said anything.

Did I think of myself as better than him?

Yes. And I asked, why does this man keep doing the same thing, again and again?

Not long ago I noticed he had started talking to himself and wondered whether he was mentally ill.

More days passed and then I saw him talking loudly at passing cars as he stood by the side of the street.

I went up to him. 

‘Hi… I’ve never seen you talking loudly at passing cars… you seem to be getting worse… did you go off your medication?’

It was the first time I had addressed him and he was surprised. He could have told me off, to mind my own business, but he didn’t.

I then added, ‘I used to work in the field so I know something about it.’

Nothing else was said but days later he had stopped talking loudly at the passing cars.

Maybe that was the problem, I reflected.

Weeks went by. Now and then we would cross paths as we both walked about, sometimes exchanging a nod.

And, yes, I felt my empathy eroding. Is he really trying to improve his lot?

A part of me wanted to give up on him, assigning him to the group of people who have stopped trying, who don’t put an effort to improve their lives. Another part of me cautioned restraint, to wait and see.

Then one day, as he again sat squatting on the sidewalk, I put money in his cup and said, ‘there is help, you know… you could go to vocational rehabilitation. There are things they could do for you so you can give up this lifestyle.’

He looked back, the eyes wide, the skin sun burnt and, yes, a hint of a smile, but said nothing.

I reminded myself not to judge, tempted as I was, for I knew nothing of his story.

More days passed and then I tried again.

I walked right up. ‘Have you looked into what is available?’

He met my gaze, and I thought I saw a sense of satisfaction in his expression. ‘I’ve made an appointment with a psychiatrist and a therapist,’ he said.

I was pleased to hear it and told him so. Will he keep his appointments? Time will tell.

All the while I had been on the edge of giving up on him. To simply avoid him. Stop putting money in his cup.

But I also reminded myself to keep up the dialogue. To not let it die.

Yes, the precious dialogue. The life giving dialogue.

The one with myself, which reminds me that as I have my powers the man must have his, even if not fully expressed.

And the one with him, so as to challenge my prejudices and my tendency to judge.

Oh, dialogue, don’t you ever leave me!

The Child Tax Credit and Social Evolution

Photo by Pexen Design on

A few days ago, Biden signed into law a new version of the Child Tax credit. The intent is to bolster the income of poor families in America, in need of relief from the growing cost of raising their children. 

From its inception, in 1997, the tax credit has been limited to families who have been employed and thus paid taxes. 

Critics now counter that many of the new beneficiaries have neither worked nor paid taxes. 

But according to the Treasury department, 97% of the families set to benefit do have wages or self employment income and the other 3% are grandparents or have health issues. 

The expectations are that 35 million families will receive the benefit ($500 a month for child under 5, and $250 per child between 5 and 17) and so help lift them out of poverty. 

Although presently scheduled to last one year, the hope is the revised law will be extended.

Here is a conversation between a supporter and an opponent of the new measure.

Wayne – It’s giveaway money. Biden looking for extra votes. Do these people really work?

Tricia – Biden says they do, many being self employed.

Wayne – Smells like giveaway.

Tricia – Wayne…. the majority are poor people. It takes money to provide for kids’ necessities, keep enough food on the table, send them to school.

Wayne – So why not call it Free Money for people who don’t practice contraception?

Tricia – Poverty is poverty, contraception or not.

Wayne – Think about it, pop a kid and get 5 hundred a month til they are 5, then 250 til they are 17. Have 5 kids, that’s 2500 a month. What a deal.

Tricia – Really? Let’s do the math. $2500 a month x 12 equals $30000 a year, to take care of 5 kids. I can tell you have no idea of what it takes to raise a kid.

Wayne – (not persuaded) Add to it the Supplemental Nutritional program, then apply for section 8 so you can get free housing and you don’t have to lift a finger. All courtesy of the US government. Oh, I forgot Medicaid for the healthcare part and throw in dental, vision and hearing. You can just sit home and raise kids. No wonder the national debt keeps rising. These people will never work, and they’ll teach their kids to not do so themselves.

Tricia – Okay… so we let them live in poverty? Or are you saying that what they’re getting is middle class fare? Because if you think that, then you’re deluded. Everything you’ve mentioned are measures to keep alive in the 21st century. No more than that.

If they don’t get housing they get to camp out on the street. If they don’t get medical care, then they catch an infectious disease and they transmit it to others. Or they are crippled by it and it’s worse.

All the ‘goodies’ you’ve described, and which you object to giving, are bare essentials in modern living. 

Are there people who are satisfied with just that? Yes, indeed. But the majority would like to do something with their lives, and it’s our responsibility to assist them.

Wayne – Our responsibility? Not at all. That’s where we disagree. It is their responsibility. Their responsibility to take risks and make the sustained efforts to move up the ladder.

Tricia – What ladder? If you don’t get a decent education, then you don’t get a chance to put a foot on the ladder. Never mind climbing it. Your argument, Wayne, is most unpsychological.

Where do you think people in those circumstances get to live? What schools do they get to attend? What educational enrichment assistance are they offered? 

The answer is none. 

Those are the kids who are likely to grow up in the midst of maladapted folks, people who teach the bad habits and ensure the cycle of poverty is perpetuated. Call it passing on social deformities. Abuse, drug dependence, gang affiliations. And so the gap widens.

The point of providing assistance is to break that pernicious sequence.

And it can happen if we invest. And invest consistently, year after year.

Wayne – Why have kids if you can’t support them? 

Tricia – People who have been knocked down by life may have only their children to give them hope.

Wayne – That reasoning sounds like passing the buck. What these people should be asking is, ‘what’s wrong with me? What do I have to do to fix it?

Tricia – You and I have a decent income… we’ve had the fortune of having got an education… we take care of our necessities and have room to spare. The people who this tax credit is intended to help, have none of that. When they thought of conceiving a child, perhaps they had already done much soul searching and yet not found in themselves the strength to go on. A child is a source of joy, and for most of us, a new beginning.

Wayne – At our expense. You and I paying the taxes.

They pause.

Tricia – Let’s talk demographics for a minute. 

Wayne – I know where you’re headed. Low fertility rates. But automation will take care of that.

Tricia – No it won’t. We need people. You’ll agree that, on average, the better educated women are, the fewer the children they’re likely to have, right?

Wayne – Sure.

Tricia – I’ve had only two children. I thought of a third but then decided against it because I wanted to spend my time doing other things than raising a child. 

Wayne – Understood.

Tricia – And no matter how well I provide for my children, how stimulating an environment I give them, there is no guarantee that they will have the intellectual and emotional equipment to be trail blazers. No guarantee that they will open new horizons for humankind to move toward. 

Wayne – You think great talent can come from anywhere?

Tricia – Oh, yes. And so it is our duty to safeguard those possibilities. 

Wayne – I’ll have to think about that one. 

Tricia – It is our duty to treat every single child, no matter what poverty they were born into, with all they need so they can develop whatever talents nature endowed them with. 

Wayne – For the good of the future of society?

Tricia – Yes. But there’s still another reason to support the Child Tax credit. A selfish one.

Wayne – What’s that?

Tricia – It reinforces our humanity. It is us saying, ‘let us help children be all they can be… for they will not forget… and give back to us in return.’ 

Wayne – I just worry that we’re taken advantage of. I don’t like that.

Tricia – Neither do I. Some people will misuse the funds… 

Wayne – Just like there are rich people who cheat on taxes.

Tricia – Exactly. But there will be far more who will be grateful… and so help raise better citizens…

Wayne – I hope you’re right.

I admit that sometimes we are too slow in responding to health crises. I had a cousin who died of an opioid overdose 10 years ago. We were still recovering from the housing crisis. 

Tricia – Sorry about that. Were you close to him?

Wayne – Not really. We grew up together but then I moved and didn’t keep up with him. He had been working in a factory but it closed and he couldn’t find another job. 

Tricia – Rough.

Wayne – The thing is… I thought he was a little lazy… not tough enough… but I missed the fact that he was in pain. I’m ashamed about that.

Tricia reaches over and rubs Wayne’s shoulder.

Wayne – I went to the funeral… talked to my aunt, his mother… she told me he really tried to get help… but there was very little around… the state had been too slow to respond.

Now I call my aunt every couple of months to see how she’s doing… if she needs anything. 

Tricia – That’s nice of you.

Wayne – I wish I’d done it before. He never did reach out to me. Maybe his pride got in the way. 

She’s raising his son. He’s 12 now. 

Tricia – What about the child’s mother?

Wayne – She left after my cousin died. She hasn’t heard from her since. Couldn’t cope with it, said my aunt. The loss.

Tricia – Maybe one day she’ll find her way back.

Wayne – Hope so.

He turns to look a Tricia.

Wayne – I hadn’t talked about this in a while. Thanks.

Tricia – You’re welcome.

Wayne – It’s easy to miss the pain others are going through.

Tricia lowers her head. Wayne looks off.

Oscar Valdes