Nicole Larson was the kind of person whose smile always made you want to smile back. It was only after a while that it struck you: She always smiled with her mouth closed.
It had been six years since Nicole last sat in a dentist’s chair, seven since her last full exam or X-rays. Childhood dental visits had been rare: Her parents’ low-wage jobs never had insurance, and after paying for rent and heat and food, there was rarely much left. As an adult, she worked long hours as a waitress and hotel housekeeper, but those jobs lacked insurance, too, and the meager pay always ran out before the month did.
So Nicole learned to white-knuckle it through toothaches, popping handfuls of ibuprofen. She brushed constantly, rinsing with every oral rinse the drugstore sold. And she perfected a dimpled, twinkle-in-the-eye smile that always got a smile in return … but didn’t require her to open her mouth.
But today all that was about to change. She had landed a new job — still minimum wage, but this time with dental coverage. She sat in the waiting room, praying that today would be the day the pain finally stopped for good.
The dentist called Nicole into the exam room, poked and prodded a bit, and listed some treatment options. Nicole crossed her fingers.
But then he stood up and shut her file abruptly, not even trying to hide his disdain. “Look, there are plenty of things we could do,” he said frostily, hand on the doorknob. “But if you’re just going to let everything go to hell like this, there’s really no point.”
And the door clicked shut behind him.
* * *
It was nearly a year before Nicole even tried another dentist, too afraid of more humiliation, of being treated as if her condition was the result of some moral failing, instead of the logical outcome of a lifetime of low wages and no insurance.
But she couldn’t help wondering: What had made an otherwise nice, competent, community-minded, churchgoing professional suddenly morph into such a jerk?
Americans, by and large, are a charitable bunch. Need canned corn for the food drive? Pairs of gloves for the church “mitten tree”? Dolls and bears for Toys for Tots? We’re all over it … and we’ll probably give you three.
But our compassionate instincts have some blind spots, no matter whether we vote red or blue. It’s not because we’re heartless (well, usually, anyway). It’s rather because we so often don’t understand the back story to what we’re seeing, or the unseen factors in play.
The rude dentist wasn’t a cartoon villain; heck, most of the time he was probably a pretty nice guy. The problem was that he was utterly unable to imagine a life unlike his own, in which dental care wasn’t a given — where if there are five things on the list of essentials and the money runs out after item four, you just can’t have number five, no matter how bad the pain. There was nothing in his personal experience to suggest the existence of such a life. He’d never imagined it, and no one had ever made him try.
So he felt nothing when he crushed Nicole’s hope and pride in two short sentences; indeed, he didn’t realize he was doing it at all.
* * *
Fortunately, most of us are much more perceptive than that dentist. But there may be gaps in our experience that, despite our best intentions, leave us with blind spots about American families living in poverty. Here are a few things we may have missed:
“Compassion is a skill that we get better at with practice,” writes theologian Karen Armstrong.
Children of immature parents who were abandoned for long periods of time, yelled at constantly, picked on, tortured, of little interest to the parents except when they somehow served to abate their depression, don't decide: "Well now, that sucked! I'm extremely disgusted by my caregivers and vow to never do the same to my children!"
What these 5 year olds do is figure out what they must have done wrong -- something is costing them what they depend on for existence, parental love and support. Since they didn't actually do anything wrong -- their parents were doing this to them not for any reason but because they were possessed by their own angry parent alters at the time -- their brains can only decide that what they did wrong was just to be vulnerable. Vulnerable, alone, pained children/people are evil -- their brain decides. The enemy. Don't ever be that; don't ever show empathy to that.
Later in life if you bring them to close contact with the poor, show them how they live, what they try to get by on, you don't educate them but enflame them. Everyday Germans in the 30s, fused with their angry parent alters, who saw the weak on the street were ANGRY at them. "How dare you degrade the great healthy German Volk!" And so sought to euthenize them. Less damage might have accrued if they were spared any contact with them at all. Ignorance, that is, wouldn't have hurt and might have helped, because seeing them face to face reminded them of themselves when they did nothing wrong yet suffered intolerably as children (German childrearing at the time was the worst in Europe: what they did to the Jews, the tortures, were repeats of what they themselves endured at the hands of their parents); it encouraged their switching into their punitive parental alters, and this sealed their fate.
Thomas Frank said that he grew up a big fan of Christopher Lasch. Lasch -- in "Haven in a Heartless World" -- despised liberals because they developed such arrogant attitudes towards traditional-minded families -- ultimately gauging them savage, uncaring, un-evolved. The conservative working class, Lasch argued they believed, were piss-poor parents compared to liberal ones. Often monsters. The problem with America wasn't ignorance, lack of knowledge -- what they originally long-assumed and hoped was the truth -- but that so many were being raised so abominably that they were going to possess little empathy for others. They were constitutionally different. Near biologically different. And progressives knew they had a bigger problem on their hands than they had originally assumed.
These progressives were of course right. And those that'd admit to this paradigm-adjusting insight, are now nowhere in press to be found. "All we have to do is educate them, because all Americans are the same," they argue ad nauseum.
And maybe showing in their absolute inability to adjust, how paralyzed they are in a certain regressed outlook, that Republicans aren't the only ones with a lock in gauging growth a bad thing.