Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From where you're standing

In college, over a Border Cafe dinner one evening, some friends and I discussed something one of us had read about that day: a young woman in some impoverished country had been prostituted to put food on her family's table.

One person at our table was disgusted.  "I would never..." she began before going on to explain how she would rather die than demean herself in that way. 

DIE?!  Yes, that's exactly what she said.

In my opinion, many people are pretty bad at imagining themselves accurately within the context of hypothetical situations.  (This is one reason many interviewers opt for behavior based questions.)  How many times have you heard a love struck romantic utter the words "I would give my life for ..."?

Don't get me wrong -- I do believe there are some folks out there that would jump in front of a train if they knew it would save someone else.  And I believe the evolutionary hard-wiring programmed into parents, mothers especially, provides all the ingredients a hero could ever need.

But, I also believe that the body has all sorts of defense mechanisms against things that would cause it harm.  Mechanisms that are incredibly difficult to short circuit, no matter how smart or how dedicated we may be.

So, back to the dinner conversation.  I had to ask -- had anybody sitting at our table ever truly been hungry?  The kind of hungry that goes on for days, if not weeks, with no end in sight?

The hungriest I had ever been was on a bus trip from Boston to Texas.  (I had packed no food and bus stops along the way wouldn't take credit cards or accept checks.) 

A nice woman gave me a Snickers bar, and I knew my parents would whisk me off to a restaurant upon my arrival, but I still could not get FOOD off my mind for the entire duration of that trip.

I won that hungry contest.

I met a man who served in three wars (WWII, Korean, and Vietnam) who said he absolutely refused to speak about them. In conversation, he began to explain why -- people ask you questions that, when answered in the absence of context, are judged harshly or make you feel terrible.  "'Have you ever killed a man?' How do you answer that?"  How do you explain that your job is to not question, but to do what is asked of you and to trust that, if something doesn't make sense from where you're standing, there is a bigger picture you do not have access to where it does.

From where we are standing, we have a limited view of the world around us.  Certain things may not make sense from that point of view, but here's to hoping we will remember to take context into consideration before judging too harshly.

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