A View from Main Street: What's Our Circle of Compassion?

I was sitting all the way at the other end of a large table from Delores in Champaign, Illinois, and I needed to do everything I could not to let the tears fall from my eyes. Here was a woman desperately struggling to keep her head above water in today’s economy and her acts of compassion were simply overwhelming to me. Throughout Main Street America, her story is not uncommon. Over the course of the three hour conversation, I learned about Delores and her life. I was in Champaign to talk with a cross-section of people for our new Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street study we’re undertaking in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation.

Delores, a middle-aged, African American, single mother is employed as a bus driver, where she earns less than $30,000 a year. And she is a Republican. Like so many Americans we’ve been talking with, Delores is doing all she can to make ends meet. And yet, all the talk of a “bad economy” in nightly news reports, findings from the latest public opinion surveys, and daily highlights of cold unemployment facts, sorely miss the point of people’ plight and aspirations. Indeed, many of the remedies being proposed to address people’s concerns seem utterly disconnected from what people are actually wrestling with.

For these issues are fundamentally about people and their lives, their hopes and what keeps them awake at night, their guts churning with anxiety. In 25 years of doing this work, I have never encountered such a time when people have been so rattled and scared about their future – where they talk so openly about their fear of losing a job, their family in free-fall as their earnings drop precipitously from $60,000 to below $30,000 and share their worries about not being able to hold onto their modest home, bought after many years of scraping together hard-earned dollars.

Delores and her fellow Illinoisans expressed frustration, even anger about the current situation. They believe the wealthy and powerful are taking care of themselves and have turned their backs on the rest of the country. They feel screwed, left behind, discarded. There is a sense of humanity that is being lost in this process – a sense of connection between and among people. In this abyss is a sense that we are no longer in the same boat together, part of something larger than ourselves.

But as strongly as Delores expressed such concerns, there was an equal fierceness about her compassion for others. Through the discussion, I came to learn Delores’ son has learning disabilities, and she’s concerned the local school system is passing him from grade to grade without regard for whether he is actually learning anything. She expressed her concerns not by using politically correct language, or with a sense that she had been unduly burdened, but with a bluntness of acknowledging reality and the need to find the right support for her son. She discussed how she pushes and prods the local school system to create a good learning environment in which he can grow. Again, she did not speak about what she was owed or make arguments about her “rights” or ask for any hand-outs.

Then, amid this story, I learned that Delores had taken in a foster child – who she has now adopted – and of her love for this child. She matter-of-factly told stories about how she reaches out to others in the community to ensure they are making a go of things; about how people need to watch out for each others’ kids; about how we must care for the less fortunate among us.

On one level, Delores has little in material goods, but on another – so much in her heart. What was so striking to me about her compassion – and that of many others, too – is not a kind of warm, cuddly, Hallmark-card like sentimental feeling one might expect, but a burning commitment to keep her dignity, to care about others, not to give in to larger currents that suggest one should turn away from others only to care for themselves.

One of our challenges today is to find ways to expand the circle of compassion within our communities and society if we, as a nation, are to move ahead. Delores is a reminder of what that really means. Despite the challenges that beset her, she has chosen to expand and embrace her circle.

Now, who are you including in your circle of compassion?

Delores's story is the first in a series we are calling A View from Main Street which will feature stories of everyday Americans throughout the country. These stories will be featured together in a national study called Citizens and Politics II slated to be published later this year. You can read Citizens and Politics I here.