We’ve all heard the excuse or explanation that “it’s society’s fault,” to explain someone’s failure. We hear expressions like this often when an individual has committed a crime or simply failed to succeed. Personal accountability is diluted as we are told that this person came from an imperfect home, had no role models or ample education.
These arguments are often wielded by those who have been favored with society’s blessings and advantages.
As readers here know, I am not politically liberal and regard myself as an independent who usually votes for Republican candidates. I did vote for Senator Sherrod Brown, one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate, a fact that astonished friends and family, as I had concerns about the character of his opponent that I could not overcome. I am proud of this vote.
A 19-year-old female was sent to me to evaluate hepatitis C. She was unemployed. She had used intravenous needles years ago and resumed using them a few weeks before she saw me. Hepatitis C was not the immediate medical priority here.
I felt that I was facing an individual who inhabited an alternative universe from mine. While I am speculating, I surmise that she faced choices through her life that I never had to confront. What narrative, I wondered, could this young woman have had that would lead her to her present destination, where she would be self-injecting poison into her body? I am not relieving her of personal accountability for the decisions that she has made. Adverse circumstances do not guarantee failure. Indeed, we all know phenomenal people who have overcome incredible adversity and long odds to achieve and inspire. I wish that their methods were contagious. The woman before me, at least so far, was not one of these individuals.
Perhaps, she came into this world unwanted and unloved. She may not have had adults in her life to build her self-worth and to help guide her. Maybe, education was a closed pathway for her. What caliber peer group was available to take her in to soothe her rejection?
My point is that it’s always easier to judge someone’s failures from higher ground. Would many of us have reached higher ground if we weren’t born with a ladder that was set up beside us to ascend?
I’m all for personal responsibility and accountability. I’m also making a case for empathy, a virtue that has not always been as strong as it should have been in my own life.
If our ladder breaks and we crash, how would we like to be treated?
Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.
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