Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Photo illustration © Michelle Gabel


The woman eases herself into a chair across from a man in the waiting room, sets her walker aside and goes into detail about her many surgeries.

 “I’ve been cut 24 times,” she says, launching into a laundry list of diseases, including diabetes, renal failure, fibromyalgia. She says she is 57, grew up in a city that didn’t have great medical care and worked cleaning offices and homes. 

She is tall and thin, after weight-loss surgery removed more than 100 pounds. She is grateful to be alive and prays regularly. She bemoans not being able to do the treadmill portion of the upcoming cardiac stress test, and has to endure an invasive alternative. During a quiet moment she pulls out a quarter and a scratch-off lottery ticket. She calls a transportation service to arrange a ride to the hospital for yet another operation next week.

The man, almost a decade older, has had only a few minor surgeries in his day, most the result of athletic pursuits he was able to enjoy with his disposable income and reasonable work schedule. He is retired and at the cardiologist out of an abundance of caution after some worrisome symptoms, knowing that he has very good health insurance and that extensive testing and visits will not bankrupt him. 

On the way to the appointment, he stopped at an ATM to withdraw cash for the parking garage and for an upcoming vacation. He doesn’t get a chance to say much to the woman, but is content to listen to her story.

What do you make of this scene? Did any opinions come to mind with each detail? Did you assign a skin color to each person? What assumptions did you make about the woman’s diabetes and weight-loss surgery … the scratch-off lottery ticket … her “unskilled” job as a cleaner? What about the man’s relatively good health? His disposable income? His upcoming vacation?

Are any of your thoughts or assumptions different from what they used to be? Or does this encounter further confirm what you’ve always felt or thought about certain classes of people?

It’s very easy to have a lack of empathy for the woman. She didn’t eat well, thinks prayer will fix everything, and come on — a lottery ticket? Aren’t they just a “stupidity tax”? Taxpayers are probably paying for your bad choices, so yes give some of it back. And stop whining, for crying out loud! 

As for the man, well, he took care of himself, ate well, exercised, held down a good job and deserves a vacation now and then.

Years ago I would have not been very empathetic toward the woman. 

But now, after seeing the bigger picture of our harsh society, I imagine her growing up in a food desert, in generational poverty, attending underfunded schools, subject to discrimination, racism and cruelty in every facet of her life. Playing the lottery? Why not, I used to. Prayer? Who am I to judge? Venting about every ache and pain? If it makes you feel better, I’ll listen. I’m stuck here with you and grateful for your story. 

As for the man, he has led a relatively privileged life, born White and male with a supportive family and educational opportunities. How would he have fared had the roles been reversed?

Of course, my empathy for the woman is in part based on assumptions. The reality of her lived experience probably includes some detrimental life choices along the way. But what societal factors went into those choices? How many of those choices were her “fault”?

What do you think?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

3 thoughts on “What do these two people ‘deserve’?

  1. Jim McKeever says:

    Reblogged this on Jim McKeever and commented:

    Are any of your assumptions different from what they used to be? Or does this just confirm what you’ve always felt or thought about “those people”?


  2. beth says:

    yes, I have really grown my empathy and understanding over the years and with life experience. some people are victims of circumstance and have much greater challenges to overcome just to get through life.


    1. Jim McKeever says:

      I’m with you on that, Beth. For too many years I was an unsympathetic jerk, not so much in action, but in thoughts and perspectives. I’m grateful to have been “awakened” — the detractors would say “woke” — with plenty of opportunities to make up for those years.

      Liked by 1 person

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