Elizabeth highlighted this op-ed on her Facebook page on Sunday and, as it is fairly short, I urge you to go read it before you continue reading this post.  It makes me sad that the author is so spot-on as he calls out the responses of so many of his readers.  I agree with him that there is a lack of compassion in general in this country (and maybe in others – I don’t honestly know because I’m only here), but more specifically online. I think that it is much easier to assert our opinions in sound bite form with respect to challenging issues when they are stereotypical or beside the point.  I can cite several examples of nasty comments I’ve seen upon reading a news article or blog post that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serve only to attack either the writer or one of the main people in the story for superficial, usually physical, attributes or knee-jerk reactions to one minor point of the story.

We are all so conditioned to have an opinion and share it that we rarely stop to consider nuances and details of a story that may have eluded us. We are conditioned to talk instead of listen, and make up our minds but not change them.  Compassion requires a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least acknowledge that their shoes are different from yours in a fundamental way. Compassion requires curiosity about the circumstances of another person’s life and it implores us to suspend (or altogether eliminate) judgment. In order to be compassionate, we have to take the time to build a bridge from the parts of us that are most human to the parts of others that are most human and that takes courage.

I struggle most with compassion when I am trying the hardest to keep fear at bay. When I see a parent grieving for their child, my mind races to find all of the reasons why that could never happen to me and often, that manifests itself as judgment. If that mom/dad hadn’t made the choice to ______________, this wouldn’t have happened. The more I convince myself that someone else is Wrong and my decisions are Right, the easier it is to feel safe, to believe that whatever horrible thing this person is suffering won’t visit itself on me and my loved ones.  Finding my way to compassion means that I have to step off of that righteous path and into the soft muck on the side of the trail, facing my fears and acknowledging that I am just as human as anyone else and I can’t know the details of someone else’s story. It requires me to open up and let fear and sadness move through me, to take up the mantle of shared humanity and responsibility and bear the weight of another person’s struggle along with them. It asks me to sit firmly in the knowledge that we are not ‘other,’ we are not separate, we all deserve love and acceptance and when we give it freely to one another we are stronger and happier for it.

It takes time and energy to be compassionate, much more time than is required to dash off a pithy, snarky remark about someone’s weight or tattoos or sexual proclivities. We have to be willing to consider, to listen, to really pay attention, and many of us don’t want to do that. We also have to be willing to forego the opportunity to see our own opinions in print or hear our own voices. One draw of the internet is that it allows us to all have our say. Our words can reach audiences we could never have dreamed of before and we don’t have to write an entire op-ed or letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper. But if “our say” is a twitter-length rant on how inferior someone else is or how they deserved whatever they got, it showcases our inability to understand the deeper connections and the vital points of any story.  Last week in our region an elementary teacher was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. The photograph of the teacher that ran on the news outlet’s Facebook page was of a mixed-race woman with facial hair. I cringed as I saw it, knowing what most of the comments would be like. Sure enough, there were hundreds of people questioning her gender, saying that of course she was a “child molester” given her physical appearance, and suggesting hateful things ought to happen to her, not because of her crime, but “because she needs to shave.” There were a few token comments from people outraged that the conversation was about her appearance instead of her crime, and a couple explaining the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which causes some women to grow facial hair, but the vast majority were hateful, even violent comments based solely on the photograph the media ran.

I asked Lola what compassion means to her and if she thought it was something that can be taught. She wasn’t very articulate about her definition of it, but she did say that she doesn’t think you can teach compassion. She said, “I think it’s individual for everyone. They need to come to it on their own and they can’t do it all the time. But you can put people in situations where they might think about it more – like volunteering at a homeless shelter or something – and then they might come to it faster on their own.”

I hope she’s right, or maybe I don’t. I’d like to think that compassion is something we can teach, but even if we can only plant the seeds and hope it spreads, that’s at least something I’m willing to put a lot of time and effort into, at least in my own household.

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.

I wonder if the government of the state of Texas is prepared to pay a whole hell of a lot of money in a civil suit. I suspect so, given their seemingly intractable belief that women do not own their own bodies when it comes to reproduction, but then I can’t even begin to understand what they’re thinking now. We might as well be talking to aliens from Mars.

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about Marlise Munoz, the woman who is on life support against her own wishes and the wishes of her family, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll fill you in.  In late November of 2013, Marlise collapsed at home and her husband, a paramedic, rushed her to the hospital to discover that her brain had been deprived of oxygen too long. She was officially brain dead.  Marlise, a paramedic herself, had previously expressed her wishes to her family to be taken off of life support should she ever find herself in this position and had even, some reports say, gone so far as to complete a living will to that effect.

Unfortunately for her and her family, Marlise happened to be 14 weeks pregnant at the time of her collapse and happened to live in a part of the world where the government gets to rule your body after you get pregnant.  She remains on life support until such time as the baby can safely be delivered. She remains on life support against her wishes and the wishes of her family. 


There is so much wrong with this case that I am almost uncertain where to begin. Almost. 


First of all, her family is presumably being held responsible for the incredibly expensive cost of keeping her alive. Even though the state is forcing the issue, I suspect they aren’t offering to foot the bill for the machines that are doing her breathing for her and nourishing her brain-dead body to keep the fetus alive and healthy.


Second, there is no guarantee, or even much evidence, that suggests that this baby will be born at term or healthy. Has there been any consideration of what happens if the baby is born with significant deficits in development due to his or her mother’s condition throughout the pregnancy? And if the father, who is currently raising another child now on the salary of one paramedic by himself, is forced to be a single parent to a child with special needs who requires additional care beyond what he is able to provide, is the state of Texas going to pay for that? Not only has this man lost his life partner and the mother of his other child, he is being forced into debt and relieved of making some of the most important life decisions on his own by the state of Texas – decisions that will affect him and his children for the rest of their lives.  


This situation is certainly a tragic one and the child with whom Marlise is pregnant was, by all accounts, wanted. Had her husband tried to go against the wishes expressed in her living will in order to save the fetus, there would certainly be a different ethical question at hand given that the child is his as well. But in this case, he is actively trying to comply with his wife’s wishes and the government has intervened in an area they have no business messing around with. If they continue to push the issue, I see no reason why they ought not to be held financially responsible for any hardship they have created by doing so.