This is the fifth in an occasional series on empathy, titled The Empathy School.
I was born in a place I did not choose. So were you. So were we all. None of us chooses where we’re born, to whom we’re born, or when we’re born. Call it random, God’s will, chance, luck, or curse, we didn’t choose it. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it.
Back in the day, it was called Pomona Valley Community Hospital. It was a good hospital, solid doctors, good care, my parents had confidence in them. It was twenty-five miles east of downtown Los Angeles. I was born to two parents who worked hard and passed on very few wounds to me. They were healthy people: physically, emotionally, mentally. My father was a laborer and my mother worked at home. I was a very lucky child. We didn’t have luxuries but we didn’t lack anything we needed. They knew education was the key and they made sure I received that.
And I didn’t deserve or choose any of this. This is true for us all. If you were born into wealth, you didn’t earn or deserve it. If you were born into poverty, you didn’t earn or deserve that. If you were born to good, stable parents, you didn’t earn or deserve that. If you were born to unstable, unkind parents, you didn’t deserve that either.
You would think this obvious fact might make us more generous. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it makes us cling harder to what we fell into by chance. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking we did earn our place in the world. That’s a dangerous deception because it is a deception. It’s untrue. It makes us small and selfish, cruel even, to those who were born into more difficult circumstances.
Realizing that we didn’t choose our first place in the world can make us more open and generous. It should. When we see people fleeing violence in Syria or Central America, we have to know that could have been us. When we see LGBTQ people being attacked in refugee camps, we should be honest enough to admit that could be us too. When we see people massed at the US southern border trying to get into the United States, why do so many of us get angry? As if we earned our place here?
It’s a basic truth. We didn’t choose or earn where we are. How will knowing that make us more generous?
Photograph: Pomona Valley Community Hospital Website