It is a common mistake to believe someone arrived at a life predicament because of their own choice. But when we reflect on our own lives, we see them more empathetically, forgiving the small mistakes and acknowledging that they weren’t conscious choices. They were merely results of incidents, different circumstances that led to our failure; this is a universe guided by molecular collisions, by determinism, and we are not at fault for our situation.
The last clutch of religious misunderstanding is that of free will, the belief that we can sin, and that we have the “choice” to do good. This fundamental confusion has implications well beyond its intended goal of self-reliance and responsibility. For one, it assumes that anyone is in the situation they are in because they chose to be there. Even forgiving unexpected life circumstances, it still harshly assumes that someone with seeming good fortune who ended up on a bad road chose that life. It credits that well-off people don’t have the right to be downtrodden, that their seeming failure is their own fault. And we know that simply just isn’t true.
Watching a documentary about homeless people in Boston earlier today I recognized how fragile my place of stability is, how easily I can be knocked down, how many times I have been knocked down. Many times I would have kept falling had it not been for my family and friends who caught me. Some people don’t have the support groups that I have had and even if they did, it’s no guarantee that those around them will be capable of the support we often need.
Alcoholism runs in my family. Tremendously so. A lot of people’s egos are too strong, or they simply don’t have the inclinations that I know I possess, but they judge my teetotalism as a silly piece of naive absolutism. However, I am aware enough to know that I am not in control, that none of us are, and that any semblance of this abstract idea is only a fragile passing or an illusion.
I sincerely hope that people give me the kind of forgiveness and empathy that I know everyone deserves if I ever stray from this safe and steady road. I haven’t always recognized this and likely will continue to neglect it at times. My arrogance has put me on a pedestal before and will likely overshadow this realization again in the future. But I know that I am side by side with the sidewalk alcoholics and destitute homeless, that what separates me from them was not good decisions that I made, but rather simple luck. I am not saying I know what people need to get back on their feet, nor what I would need if ever I find myself in a bad situation. That is the real question. But I know now that the judgement that I have all too often passed on the worse-off stranger is useless and misguided. And worse yet, it likely has been a barrier to helping them. Ditch that misunderstanding, and very likely we could open up some doors for each of the lost to find their way again.