Occasionally things happen in life that keep popping into your head. It can be as simple as something someone said once that stuck with you or it can be much more complicated than a few words spoken once in conversation.
The former is on my mind today.
When I was in college, I was the leader of a secular campus group. I had a lot of discussions about religion with people very willing to criticize any and all of the bad aspects of religion. It’s very freeing to have a conversation with people willing to discuss that bad aspects of religion honestly. I’m not saying there’s nothing good about any religion, so don’t get lost.
The particular snippet that comes back to me over and over from one of these conversations hardly has to do with religion at all. One person essentially proposed the argument that religion as a sort of opiate (my word) can be good. This person went on to say that no one at Dickinson College could possibly understand what it was like to need religion or faith in their life because of hardship.
The background of this statement doesn’t matter a whole lot. The background of Dickinson College could use a bit of explanation. As a relatively selective liberal arts school where less than 64% of the most recent entering class received scholarship and/or grant assistance, it’s safe to say the average Dickinson student comes from an upper middle class background. It is not, then, a hotbed for the underprivileged, for racial minorities, or for students that grew up in poverty or near-poverty. There are many reasons for this, none of which matter for this post.
What matters (to me, at least) is the statistical discrimination that the person was engaging in and the complete lack of faith in humanity they exhibited.
To assume that, because the average Dickinson student has experienced very little hardship, no Dickinson student has experienced significant hardship is unfair. It’s a sort of statistical discrimination, and it’s a bit alienating.
Worse, it shows a lack of faith in humanity. The American dream may not be particularly alive and well, but humans still show a tremendous amount of perseverance. People all over the world never overcome poverty, being forced to work full time at a young age, or what have you. That most Dickinson students come from a privileged background does not mean that no Dickinson student has ever been disadvantaged.
Yes, the average student at Dickinson is well-off. Yet I know there are students at Dickinson and schools like Dickinson that came, not just from humbler backgrounds than their peers, but from hardship, poverty, and awful situations. Situations in which many people (but not everyone) turn to faith or religious communities. Situations from which comparatively privileged people apparently think you cannot work your way out of.
That appears to me to be a tremendous lack of faith in humanity, and it makes me sad. Is it hard to work your way out of poverty or other hardships? Yes. Harder than it should be I think, but not impossible. I found it tremendously unfair that this person discounted any hardship any Dickinson student had ever been through as not hard enough. I imagine there are a fair number of students that would beg to differ. I also found it alienating – I wouldn’t describe my childhood as full of hardship, but it wasn’t terribly similar to most of my peers or terribly easy – to think that others in the room at the time could have had a hard life and were basically being told they don’t understand hardship? Well, it didn’t exactly make anyone want to open up about their humbler backgrounds.
What should you take away from this post? Next time you are in a situation in which you must consider the lives of others, realize that no two lives are ever really the same. Realize that even though you are sitting across from an apparently well-adjusted, educated person you have no idea what their background is. You have no idea if their parents were millionaires or if they were raised by a single parent or grew up in the foster system or came to the United States knowing no English without any real protection or safety net. You have no idea – don’t assume they’ve never had to work for what they have in life. Don’t assume they have never made hard choices or experienced serious hardship, and I’ll try to remember my own advice.