Plato advises us to always be kind, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It is easy to forget this advice; it is easy to assume that others should have known better or that they should have made a better choice than they did.
Consider the heartbreaking story of Tom and Betty West reported on in the Wall Street Journal and summarized in this short video. In 1959, Tom and Betty placed their developmentally disabled three-year old son Richard in a state institution in Oregon. Richard, who was deprived of oxygen at birth, was diagnosed as severely mentally retarded. The doctor told Tom and Betty that Richard “would always have the mentality of a three-year-old and needed 24-hour care;” he urged that Richard be institutionalized at Oregon’s Fairview home.
Like most institutions at the time, Fairview was a cold, stark place. When the Wests brought Richard to Fairview, “an administrator recommended that Mr. and Mrs. West kiss Richard goodbye and leave quickly.”
The Walls Street Journal describes life at Fairview:
An old black-and-white film called “In Our Care” describes Fairview, showing a porch crowded with children clapping and rolling a ball. “This child spends most of her time tearing paper into shreds,” the narrator says.
Eventually, Oregon moved Richard to a different facility without informing the family of his new location. The family then went over 40 years without seeing their son and brother.
Now in their 80s, Tom and Betty had strong urges to find out what happened to Richard. Initially, the state resisted their inquiries. Finally, through the efforts of Jeff West, the youngest of the West siblings, the family found Richard. At age 52, Richard is living in a group home and has progressed far more than his original diagnosis had said was possible—among other things, he can dress himself, feed himself, catch a ball, and fish.
We can only imagine the immense feelings of loss and guilt that the Wests have suffered these many years. They have been fighting a hard battle.
The late Thomas Hora defined compassion “as understanding the lack of understanding.” We all lack understanding. Hora writes:
We have compassion for ourselves and we say, “Well, I may have these feelings and I may have these thoughts, but I don’t have to be involved with them, because there is something higher and better for me to pay attention to.” This is forgiveness.… This is important because unless we have compassion towards ourselves, how will we ever have compassion for others?
Now, Hora is not encouraging us to repress, suppress, or express our faulty ideas and feelings. Instead, he is asking us to recognize them and to reorient our focus of attention to a higher plane.
Polly Berends, one of Hora’s students, points out that we all allow unquestioned assumptions to live through us:
Day by day, year after year, we live our lives out of certain fundamental assumptions of which we are almost completely unaware. These assumptions govern our lives, yet they are so universal and unquestioned as to be virtually unconscious.
We are all fighting a hard battle, and we can all understand how unquestioned assumptions were expressed through the Wests:
- First, relying on one expert to tell them what was possible in Richard’s life.
- Then, relying on that same expert to tell them what was the best course of action.
- Next, allowing the norms of society to dictate their course of action.
I’m not implying that the Wests made a “faulty” choice—I do not know. Yet, I would not deny anyone the responsibility for their choices. Taking responsibility simply means we acknowledge that mistaken ideas and thinking have impacted our experience of life. In that, we are all in the same boat. Yet, we can take responsibility without blame. Blame is harsh—by condemning and judging ourselves, we keep our faulty thought patterns in place. Keeping faulty thought patterns in place, we will never make a better choice.
Instead of condemnation, we can feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and for others for the choices we make. Ignorance lives in all of us, and kindness is one antidote that should be liberally used.