I want to tell you about one of the scariest days of my life.
But first let me give you some back story.
Once Upon a Time…
I was raised in a strong and loving conservative family. My Grandpa thought Ronald Reagan was akin to one of the twelve disciples. And following his lead, growing up I though Ronald Reagan was the greatest ever.
Believe it or not, until I was a young adult, I didn’t totally believe that Democrats existed.
I mean, a part of me knew they did. But I had just never met one, at least not that I was aware of.
As you may suspect, that is because I was raised in a Republican family. And I feel lucky because I was raised with the best historical values of the Republican party. These are values like hard work, love for family, respect for the Constitution and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. And I still hold a lot of these same values today.
Even though I was raised around really committed Republicans, I was also lucky that my family emphasized kindness, love, generosity, compassion for the poor. My family was not at all wealthy. Growing up, my parents were ministers and teachers. And we rarely had money for extras and luxuries. But one of my strongest memories growing up was that my parents consistently gave money to those in need.
I grew up thinking both that hard work and responsibility are important. And I grew up learning that it is also really important to help those who are struggling.
The older I got, the more interested I became in political philosophy and social problems. Since I was young, I remember being burdened (or blessed–depending on how you look at it) with a deep concern for how to solve social problems like poverty, homelessness, and food scarcity. My desire to help solve these problems intensified as I got older.
“Migrant Mother”, Dorothea Lange
As I grew up, I remember hearing some Republicans around me say things like, “If people are poor, it is their own fault. They just needed to work harder or smarter.” Or I would hear people say, “Poor people on welfare are lazy.” I will call this view the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View.
This was a different view of the poor than the one I grew up with. And I wondered for a while if it was true. In some ways, I am sorry to say, I felt comforted by it. After all, if people’s suffering, poverty, and homelessness was simply their own damn fault, that meant I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Honestly, it would often have been a relief not to worry. But the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View was also comforting because it meant that if I just worked hard, I would be guaranteed success.
And this brings me to one of the scariest days in my life.
One of Those Days that Changed Me Forever
When my husband and I first got married, he worked at an outreach center in one of oldest and poorest neighborhoods of the city where we live. Many people who lived in the neighborhood were descendants of immigrants from Appalachia. They had left their homes when their land was destroyed by coal mining or by U.S. policies that destabilized farmers’ abilities to make a living.
The neighborhood in which my husband worked could be characterized as a very poor, semi-working class neighborhood. And there was a lot of drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, and poverty. Much of this was due to folks’ inability to find a stable job and to provide for their family. A high percentage of the folks who grew up there never finished high school, primarily because of a lack of opportunity and stable family support.
I remember a woman who worked in the center saying one time that kids that grow up in the neighborhood often do not escape it unless they have some kind of meaningful connection outside the neighborhood. Such a connection might be something like a good school or caring teacher or mentor that showed them the way out.
My husband worked at the center for about ten years. And we attended the church associated with the center for about six of those years.
We spent a lot of time with the folks in that neighborhood. And I met so many people I will never forget.*
I remember a young woman who had suffered almost every conceivable disadvantage in life. Yet remained so sweet and kind and defied the odds to go on to college. I don’t know how she did it because if I had been in her place, I think I would have given up early on.
And I met a young man who was trying desperately to succeed at education and go to college one day. I watched his family become uncomfortable with his success and try to sabotage him at every turn until he gave up and sank into depression.
As another example, I knew a family there that was relatively stable and building a good life for themselves. And then the father was falsely accused of a crime, and the ensuing events caused the family to spiral into chaos.
I knew a father that worked three jobs and tried as hard as he could to be a good model for his children. But his family could barely make ends meet.
One of my strongest memories of that time is of a day in which we had a potluck. And I was sitting next to a woman in the church. I will call her Penny.
Penny had a really hard life. Both of Penny’s parents were mentally ill and rarely had work. She grew up in poverty. Her dad was illiterate, and her mom was only semi-literate. They couldn’t help her with school work. And they never had money for special outings or vacations. Penny had barely left the neighborhood her whole life. And she often didn’t have enough to eat growing up. She had suffered abuse.
Amazingly, despite all of these hardships, Penny worked extremely hard at several jobs. She attended church regularly. And she had a quirky and delightful sense of humor and a propensity for conspiracy theories.
That day as I sat beside her listening to her story, I had a strange moment. Time slowed down, and I saw myself in her eyes. I suddenly realized, “At our most basic level, we are the same. We just grew up in really different environments.”
I realized suddenly that I could have just as easily grown up in her shoes. And if I had, I would be in the same exact place she was in now. However, I wasn’t sure if I would have done as well as she had.
And this scared me. A lot. Because I realized suddenly and very clearly that the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View was false.
I mean, it wasn’t that there wasn’t some truth in it. Of course hard work matters. And of course people often benefit when they work hard and work smart. Of course good character and trying hard are important.
But I also realized that the family, neighborhood, and life conditions someone is born into have a profound influence on a person’s life. And sometimes people have a really hard time in life, not because they aren’t working or trying hard. I realized, rather, that sometimes the life circumstances into which people are born and over which they have no control often give them serious handicaps.
And these handicaps can put them far behind their peers who came from more stable families and communities.
I also realized the precariousness of life that day. For example, I realized that someone like me or my family or friends could work really hard. And then suddenly, through no fault of their own, they could face a severe and enduring setback. Such a setback might be a stock market crash or a sudden job loss, catastrophic accident, or illness.
This was one of the scariest days of my life because I realized how fragile life is and how vulnerable we are.
I am also extremely grateful for this day because it gave me a greater understanding of poor and marginalized people. And it was also the day in which my political views began to change.
I still believed in family because I saw how much a strong, stable family (or lack of it) affected children in the center neighborhood. But I also realized how organizations funded through taxes, like strong public schools and social services like WIC, could enable a child to escape generational poverty.
And I still believed in individual and church generosity. But I also realized that such generosity alone could not address all the needs of the poorest members of society. So I realized that government, individuals, and church all needed to be involved in the solution to these problems.
And I still believed in hard work. But I realized that if people did not have stable education, jobs, and social support, their hard work often does not bring them the pay-off it should and that they deserved.
I still believed in the Constitution. But I realized that the Founding Fathers would certainly have wanted us to interpret the Constitution in a way that makes sense in contemporary society, rather than interpreting it as though we still live in an agrarian society in the 1700’s.
So, I developed what some folks would call liberal views. About ten years after this, I went back to grad school to earn my PhD in philosophy. And I specialized in ethics, philosophy of education, and political philosophy.
I now teach at a local college, and I guess you could say, given some of my views, that I am a liberal professor.
But I would like you to consider why it is good for all of us to take special care for the poor, whether we call ourselves conservative or liberal.
How the Poor Can Save Us
Last year I taught a course called Theories of Economic Justice. And I chose a reader that contained an equal mix of both conservative and liberal views of this issue. I assigned my students to read articles from both perspectives and to argue for their position. I also asked them to make sure they addressed weakness in their political perspective by drawing on the strengths of the opposite view.
In class, I also shared my experiences in the center neighborhood. And I also had my students read read a book called No Salvation Outside the Poor by a Latin American theologian, John Sobrino.
In the book, Sobrino argues that while we often look down on the poor and consider them failures or defects, it is through the poor that we are saved.
The poor in our society often point out to us the aspects of our society that are cruel, unjust, and that put certain people at an unfair disadvantage. These are diseased and destructive aspects of our culture. If we pay attention to the stories of the poor and their lived experience, we will often realize that they point out our own cultural problems. And we can better understand how to address them.
Searching for Solutions, Understanding Vulnerability
Although I hold more liberal political views, I want my students to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a wide variety of political positions. And whatever political and economic views my students develop, I want them to do so with the most severely and economically disadvantaged in mind.
I want them to realize that at a basic level, we are the same, and life is fragile and vulnerable.
Sometimes people believe college professors are trying to make everyone liberal. And I imagine some are.
After all, college professors are human beings and imperfect. But I think a lot of college professors realize what most of us know deep down inside. They know that it takes compassion, listening, empathy and dialogue with vulnerable people to create the kind of society that cares for all of us.
And sometimes it is uncomfortable and frightening to listen to these kinds of views, but it is worth it.
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*All of the stories in this post are based on real people and events, but some of the details have been changed for privacy purposes.
Published by shellypruittjohnson
My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosopher with a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better in order to cultivate personal and political resilience. I teach ethics and a variety of other courses at a local college. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger. I am also the author of three logic and critical thinking books for high school and middle school: _Argument Builder_, _Discovery of Deduction_ (co-author), and _Everyday Debate_, published by Classical Academic Press. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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12 thoughts on “One of the Scariest Days of My Life”
So, I was raised (part of the time) in a Quaker community in rural southern Idaho (Greenleaf). The Idaho Quakers had strayed far from the original group and continues it’s rightward march to this day. I identify more with the left-leaning variety of Quakers and am crestfallen to see the hard right turn my classmates have taken in the past half-century. They are more akin to Baptists or conservative Presbyterians than the original Quakers. I drifted to the liberal side during a sad 13 months in South Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. Many liberal arts schools do tend to employ liberal profs. From my perspective, that’s isn’t such a bad thing.
I have a similar experience, William! One of the things I have realized is that most of elementary and secondary education is from a generally conservative view. This isn’t all bad, but I think most people don’t wrestle with clearly liberal views until they go to college. And I think it is uncomfortable for a lot of us–I know it was for me. But I think it is important.
I am also always so amazed and honored to meet folks who have survived Vietnam.
Then there’s what my dad (a left-leaning professor himself) says: “If we’re liberal brainwashers, we’re pretty bad at it.”
Ha! That is so true, Brendan! That is similar to a feeling I have when folks say a Deep State is trying to overthrow Donald Trump. I’m like, “If there is, it is the most clumsy and ineffective Deep State that has ever existed.”
Yep, it’d be quite a clumsy deep state indeed.
great article Shelly Facebook wouldn’t let me share it, but I did copy the link & posted it. I hope some of my friends take the time to read it.
That is so, so kind, Tina! I really appreciate it! Facebook is being really stubborn right now.
That is so sweet, Tina! Thank you so much.