Compassion in the early 1800’s United States – responsibility on both sides

I’m still going on Marvin Olasky’s book and get this – in the early 1800s, compassion and helping others was very much seen as an individual responsibility and everyone’s responsibility! Imagine that.  And those in need also had to take action to help themselves.

“It was important for the better-off to know the poor individually, and to understand their distinct characters.”

It’s worth noting that in these days, communities were smaller, and people KNEW each other.  He also talks about how the sermon at church was the primary means of mass communication, and “the need to offer personal help and hospitality became a frequent subject of sermons” in colonial days.

“Congregationalist and Presbyterian sermons regularly noted that faith without works of compassion was dead. (p.7, Ch 1)”

So it was a societal expectation, back then given that most everyone practiced religion, that you had to help others if you could.

Here’s what he says:

1. If someone got sick or had a tragedy happen to their family, other people in the community would look after them completely. They’d give their time doing chores or cooking meals. They’d take in orphaned children and help women who were widowed.

2. “Decent Living” was a prerequisite to being helped!  This meant that a) you had to be a moral person (not a drunk, abuser, thief, etc.) AND that b) you had to work if you could. If someone was seen as lazy and not willing to help themselves, they wouldn’t keep giving them aid.

“The able-bodied could readily find jobs in a growing agricultural economy; when they chose not to, it was considered perfectly appropriate to pressure them to change their minds.”

Aha. Makes sense. We don’t really differentiate at ALL nowadays between a) people who are poor or struggling due to tragedies or due to being born into bad circumstances and b) people who are poor due to their own inaction and/or consistent bad choices, or due to not wanting to work.

Wow, it’s probably heresy to even write down that the second category exists. Funny isn’t it?

I’ve done a fair amount of self-development courses over my lifetime: did Landmark Education, have been to Byron Katie’s workshops, listened to Anthony Robbins, even in my teens went to SuperCamp down in LA., as my parents wanted to help me see the possibilities for my life…ALL of these different approaches remind you that YOU and no one else is responsible for your life.  You can’t control external circumstances all the time (i.e. whether your husband has a subarachnoid hemorrhage when your son is 11 months old and won’t be able to work for the rest of his life). They tell you to focus on what you CAN do, what you can control -your own goals, motivations, actions, outlook.

So when I see non-profits with a goal ‘to end poverty in the world’…my first thought is always you can’t rid of all poverty!  You can’t stop or prevent the poverty that comes from being able to sit on the couch all day, watching TV or surfing the web and not taking any action.  I could choose to stop going to work, just watch movies and play with my kids all day.  I’d eventually get fired, lose my job…I could make our family poor in about 6 months; probably less, if I bought a lot of stuff online, took out some credit cards…Individual choice of course impacts whether someone is poor or not.

Most of the dialogue around fighting poverty doesn’t ever mention this, does it?  But labeling people as lazy or irresponsible and writing them off is judgmental, self-righteous, and unproductive.  I can imagine that in the 1800’s, you could get labeled as a ‘good-for-nothing’ and then be in big doo doo. We COULD, however, ensure that people are active participants in turning their lives around, that they build a growth/empowered mindset, and that there are consequences for their choices. That sounds like a good idea.

One recent example where the charity organization DOES require people to show individual responsibility:  Homeboy Industries, led by Father Boyle, in Los Angeles.  I’ve read his book, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion.  If former gang members want to turn their lives around, Homeboy Industries requires them to make commitments in exchange.  If they are late or don’t show up to work X times (I can’t remember the exact number) they will be let go. And they have to attend life skills classes too.  Homeboy Industries requires that they are active contributors in turning their situations around. (I think I’ve recalled the details correctly; apologies if it’s not 100 accurate, though.) I was lucky enough to hear Father Boyle talk a few years ago at an IABC Los Angeles event.)Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest, by the way, for those of you who now distrust and dismiss Christianity as a force for good.

Thoughts? What other orgs are out there where they have recipients actively participate?  Habitat for Humanity, certainly.

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