Compassion and Slim Choices
The power of choice may be the most powerful power that human beings can access! We have the ability, do we not, to choose what we will do this moment, to choose our course of action, to literally choose our destiny. Some embrace this as the reason for their own success, while at the same time citing it as the reason for other’s failure. People who are struggling could make different choices. It is as simple as that. But is it that simple?
A friend who works with people who are coping with grinding, generational poverty, recently talked with me about this. He described how the spectrum of choices available to different individuals can vary so greatly that they are barely comparable. Consider the following graphic –
Person 1 – Joe, does have a spectrum of choices, however financially, socially, and emotionally slim those choices might be.
Person 2 – Gavin, has a much wider spectrum of choices. He comes from a financially solid background and has a large number of social connections from which to attain his own goals.
It is interesting that the choice options which may appear as the absolute best for Joe appear as the lowest possible options for Gavin. Their worlds are that different. And given this reality, what are the implications for those who work with the Joe’s and Gavin’s among us?
In his first big seller, Reality Therapy (1965), Glasser emphasized the role of personal responsibility. He described then how being responsible is analogous to being mentally healthy, while being irresponsible is equated with mental illness. Responsibility was basic to reality therapy and living responsibly ultimately led to happiness. These statements may have been accurate, yet Glasser became uncomfortable with how the concept of responsibility was being applied. Practitioners, many of them teachers, social workers, counselors, or in law enforcement, were using responsibility more like a “sledge hammer” than a goal or guide. When it became apparent that a student or parolee or client was behaving irresponsibly, then guilt or threats or disappointment would be applied in various forms. Seeing this trend develop, Glasser pulled back from the responsibility emphasis. The strands of responsibility could only be presented or emphasized from a foundation of involvement or a positive relationship.
The spectrum of choice issue may be similar to the responsibility issue, in that it may be too easy to assume that choice is choice and that everybody has access to a wide spectrum of options. If we think that way it will be just as easy to become judgmental toward anyone that doesn’t access good choices (which are obvious to us) or who may even make bad choices (when to us it is so plain that it could only be a bad choice).
The implication for us is to remember how different the choice options are for people, especially those affected by poverty, and how important it is for us to be compassionate in our thinking and our behavior.
Expecting Joe to view his life options in the same way that Gavin views his options is not realistic, and in some ways even cruel. One of the awesome aspects of choice theory is that it enables us to work with others as individuals, truly taking their reality into account as plans are formed toward a better future.
Jim, this “spectrum of choice” is a brilliant idea. I hope you discuss the implications of this concept in future posts. One suggestion. You are a little tentative in your opening sentence. I suggest “is” instead of “may.” This is true for the Christian, other believers or the atheist. It is a short list of those things we do not have a choice over. Like you say, the spectrum is smaller for some at the beginning, but history inspires us with those who choose their way into rich experiences that assist so many.
The spectrum of choice idea came to me as I visited with one of our mutual friends, Bob Hoffman. As he wondered aloud to me about the journeys of different people that he knows, and the fact that their choices seem so limited to begin with, the spectrum idea hit me. I would like to discuss the topic in future posts, although it is pretty new to me at the moment. Your help will be appreciated.
I agree with you that the spectrum of choice can increase and widen as a person thinks differently, and as their circumstances change.
Wonderful article ! In relation to my community focus it appears that our Homeless(ness) crisis and high rental accommodation exacerbates the choice gap. In this area Dublin(ers) are networking in Choice(s) via v People Power! Dialogue within communitys who have in the past decade been politically isolated. 2014 the spectrum is being inspired organically through our people’s histor(ies
I would like to hear more about “the spectrum being inspired organically through our people’s histories.” It sounds like you see first hand evidence of the spectrum of choice idea. The concept is new to me, so I haven’t thought through the implications yet, but I think we may have stumbled onto something important.
Beautifully written, Jim. A clear description of how individual the matter of choice is. Without considering this principle teachers, ministers, social workers, everyone in the “helping” professions (and those in the sales profession which is often thought of as much less honorable) are only offering choices to those they wish to help or influence which come from their their own range of perceived options. The result is frustration and a resulting force / resistance process you have described so well in other writings.
If we have the humility, patience, and compassion to spend the majority of our time seeking to get inside the world of the other persons perceptions we will be shown when and how to connect them to a larger range of choices-little by little with no agenda for how fast this is supposed to happen other than the speed at which they can comprehend the world outside of the one they they dwell in today.
I believe this is what God is doing with every human being today, not to “save” us, for he has already done that through Jesus, but to patiently draw us deeper into his family at whatever pace our limited perceptions will allow us to go. He starts with wherever we are
(Every single human throughout earth’s history) as individuals, and will continue the one on one journey with each of us throughout eternity.
As I read your comments I wondered how they could be better shared with others. You eloquently and concisely expand on what I tried to say in the post.
Key phrases or ideas that I resonated with in your comments –
+ the idea that we often try to coach or guide others from the perspective of our own perception of the range of choices the person has. (This is a bit of a problem right off the bat.)
+ the idea that our primary goal is to try to empathetically connect with the person we are trying to help, to see things through their eyes, and to try and sense what they are feeling.
+ the idea that through that connection little steps can take place – little by little as you say – not according to our timetable, but as the growth unfolds.
There is something very powerful in such an approach.
Thank you. Good reminders.
A friend of mine teaches elementary school in a very rough, yet rural area. She and I sometimes talk about how my relatively privileged students and parents might view the lives and/or choices of her students and parents. In America, we so love the idea of the power of the individual to rise above his/her circumstances (*That’s what bootstraps are for!*), and the idea that everyone earns what they “deserve” is pretty pervasive.
However, looking at my friend’s students, out of a class of 15 or so, only one or two of them live with both of their biological parents. All the others are being raised by grandparents, complicated single parents, or unrelated guardians. Most of them do not live with their parents because their parents have had major substance abuse issues and/or problems with the law, which is very common in their geographic area. Two crazy stats are that the county in question is currently number one in the nation for babies born to drug-addicted mothers and number one in California for suicide. Unemployment is also very high.
Looking at all this information, I can’t help but think that my friend’s students don’t stand much of a chance, even with a good school and some adults who love and care for them. What child “deserves” that foundation/starting point? How can you pull yourself up if you only have one boot? This is what they are born into; whereas my students are born into a college community of professors, doctors, and other mostly middle and upper-middle class adults who value degrees and certain kinds of jobs. Equal opportunity isn’t as real as we like to think.
You have provided a very real example of what a spectrum of choice can look like in the lives of others around us. If only more of us can see this reality and adjust our approaches and even our expectations. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts out. I hope readers will scroll down and be inspired by what you have shared.
Thank you Megan. Very much to the point!
This “spectrum of choice” concept is a good way of recognizing that each person’s quality world is constructed with the building blocks of our physical and biological inheritance. Megan offered a good example of this. Along with social and financial poverty I would like to add emotional poverty. Emotional poverty might include those who are born with gentle spirits who find it very difficult to take “responsibility” for their choices, since pleasing others is the largest portion of their quality world. As they are seeking to please those around them they develop fewer choice options than others who consider what is right or best for themselves. Another emotionally impoverished person would be the addict. His or her choices are greatly reduced.
Along with the spectrum idea comes the potential for judgement. Your choice spectrum may be different than mine and I might want to change you so you have the same spectrum I have instead of understanding what limitations you work with. Maybe I need to recognize my own limited choice spectrum. Maybe I need to see my impoverished state. Maybe I need support from another to encourage me that I have more options than I had previously known. Among the many things William Glasser was very good at, was his complete absence of judgement. How do we assess the spectrum concept and keep from judging?
I am reminded that we hardly know our own hearts (quality worlds) let alone another’s. One thing I do know is that when I or another person I am supporting thinks there are no options, then we need to stop and remember that the truth is there are always options/choices. Maybe we just need wait until it comes clear before acting on a impoverished choice. . . . just a few ideas to add to the discussion.
Great thoughts, Karen.
The phrase “building blocks of our biological inheritance” is thought-provoking for me. I like the phrase.
And I think that emotional poverty is a very real thing. My hope and prayer is that I can become more empathetic in my response to others, whatever their emotional richness or poverty may be.