Student Loan Forgiveness as a Metaphor

I heard this frustrating and beautiful story on NPR last week (which is somehow lost in the web). When it comes to issues that actually have more than one reasonable position, NPR will generally try to give voice to opposing sides, so as I listened to this young woman recount the numerous ways (3 jobs while attending school, being hospitalized for exhaustion, etc.) and multiple years she had to struggle in order to keep her college loans low and pay back what she did take out, I assumed she would conclude as so many I’ve heard have, with Why should someone else get a free ride when I had to bust my ass to pay off my loans?

She didn’t. She didn’t want her younger brother or anyone else to suffer like she did.

What makes this narrator so compassionate? Perhaps it’s because she has a younger brother – a face to put to the potential suffering. Perhaps she’s just a generous person. Perhaps it’s because her parents are immigrants, and she’s grown up with the idea that you make sacrifices to make things better for others.

When I think about it, in my memory (utterly bereft of statistical backing) it seems most of the people I’ve heard complaining about student loan forgiveness are middle-class White men. Assuming (against all reason) that I am correct, why would that be?

I think it might come back to the lie of the American Dream. Those who buy into it have to believe, to a significant degree, that we have a level playing field. That we not only start the race from the same location, but with the same strength, speed, quality of coach, abilities, shoes and feet to wear them, instructions, familial and community support, nutrition, etc. They believe this even as they see that others cannot attend college at all, that some can pay for college painlessly, that some are desirable enough to be paid to attend college.

They say they worked hard to pay off their loans, as if that act of valor stands in a vacuum. As if others are not working just as hard, or twice as hard, for a quarter of their wages. As if the sacrifices they made, the luxuries they denied themselves, weren’t too extravagant for a large portion of the population to even shoot for, let alone deny themselves. As if people haven’t had to struggle through poor public schools, hunger, poverty, and unsafe environments just to walk through the doors of the college, and walked out with a lifetime’s worth of debt. As if the racial wealth gap weren’t a hallmark of American society and as if thousands upon thousands of Black people with degrees weren’t using their relative success to financially assist their systemically underprioritized, underpaid, and overburdened friends and family members rather than pay off their own loans.

I’m not saying I don’t feel it when things like this happen. I had a pang of bitterness just last week, when I found out that my old roof did not sustain enough hail damage to be replaced by my insurance company, when the house half a block away did. Why does she get the free roof? Why do I have to keep waiting that a giant storm hits before the thing starts leaking and the cost has to come out of my own pocket?

Because that’s just the way it goes. And I’m totally fine.

The idea of fairness on this fraught and complex an issue is, frankly, ridiculous. The world is a bizarre place and the number of factors contributing to someone’s financial and academic success are almost unimaginable. Justice may be possible, though we’re certainly far from that, too. Fairness is relative, at best. Besides, contemporary capitalism isn’t about fairness anyway. Maybe the loan forgiveness objectors should try communism.

And, all that aside, why would we ever want others to suffer as we’ve suffered? Do we think it makes things better? Yes, life is suffering, but Buddhism believes it is undesirable and avoidable thing, and we work on ourselves and the world to alleviate it. How do we alleviate it? By letting go. Letting go of our righteousness, our ideas of fairness, and everything else we’re attached to. It helps everyone, spiritually. And easing the burden of college debt helps everyone in practical terms as well. Without the stress of crushing debt, people are healthier and happier, rippling that wellbeing out to their community and easing the burden of the health case system. Without having to put hundreds of dollars toward payments every month, people could be saving or spending money on the products that “keep the economy moving” or buying healthier food or helping their neighbors or traveling to expand their minds and hearts. Without the desperate need to work a job, the best paying job, to pay off loans, people could be doing what they want to do, going into the fields they’ve trained for at what might be a lower starting wage, becoming entrepreneurs, working at nonprofits. People who came from poverty could start buying homes, building generational wealth, investing.

(the same could be said for universal health care, FYI)

Money encourages us to become very narrow in our thinking, because it breaks real, actual, complex costs and benefits into cold numbers. Perhaps your tally now shows -$100,000 dollars in paid loans and you see someone else at +$25,000 from the government. It looks unfair. But who is it unfair to? Everyone benefits from this, and what you have sacrificed does not change. I suppose you could argue that “my tax dollars are paying for their education.” Is that a bad thing? Don’t we want educated neighbors? Do you know what else your tax dollars pay for? The billionaire-expanding, environment-destroying, war-waging, and plain unnecessary crap we pay for? This seems like a far better investment.

The End of Empathy, pt.1

(Unnecessarily dramatic title brought to you by the allure of alliteration.)

invisibiliaInvisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts. Given, I only listen to half a dozen podcasts, but that’s because I’m picky, dammit. They recently did an episode on empathy, that left me with at least as many questions as answers, which is, in my view, doing things right.

Before I get into this, I’d like to try and distinguish between empathy and compassion (something the Invisibilia ladies did not do). You can disagree with my conclusions, but good luck trying to find definitive definitions. I’ve read half a dozen interpretations online and no two of them agreed. Even my trusty Shorter Oxford dictionary couldn’t help, for the simple reason that English just doubled up on the term by pulling it from two different languages. Empathy is Greek; Compassion is Latin. As much as I’d like to believe that every word in our ridiculously large lexicon is unique and necessary, it’s simply not true.

But I do think there is an important distinction in the definitions applied to the two words. When they are distinguished, one is taken to mean something like co-feeling: actually experiencing the pain, etc. of another. This is also referred to as Affective Empathy. The other is more like relating to, or understanding, or being able to identify with another. That’s called Cognitive Empathy, but I’m going to refer to it as Compassion, because that’s the word typically used in (metta) meditation, and I’ll use Empathy as co-feeling (except where I’m forced to do otherwise by the language of my sources). Compassion seems to have a level of useful detachment to it, which also aligns with Buddhism; whereas empathy gets you deep in the shit.

You may have heard that empathy is on the downslide in our youth. This conclusion is mostly based on self-assessments that have been administered to college students methodically over the past 50 years, with some cohort-wide behavioral changes tossed in for validation. Most of the guesses as to the why of it all have to do with decreased personal interaction with others due to technology, highly competitive schools and sports, and an emphasis on “success.” I’m interested in why it’s there, but more in our capacity to right the course going forward. And that ties nicely into the “punching a Nazi” culture that has compelled and repulsed me ever since Trump got elected.

The Invisibilia episode hinges on a clash of values – those of host Hanna Rosen, and producer/job applicant Lina Misitzis. Hanna fully admits that her goal, the show’s goal, is to help listeners feel empathy (either definition) for people who they might typically write off. When Lina asked her “Why?” I was stunned, but impressed. To me, compassion is an inherent good. Compassion increases connection and decreases conflict and isolation. It’s what we should be aiming for as a species. The most horrifying thing about terroristic acts is not what they do, it’s that they do not care about the people they perform these acts upon. Religious extremists are terrifying in their absolute assurance that they are correct, and that others are not worth correcting or worth giving a shit about.

(I was impressed with the Why because I think questioning any assumptions is a wise move.) Anyway, Lina’s position is that empathy is not healthy because humanizing people you are opposed to weakens your resolve to fight them. She said she had listened to an interview with the guy who organized the racist Charlotte rally, an interview that let him express himself like a regular person, and it started “fucking with my conviction.” I guess it’s natural that this worried her, but it ties into a couple things that I’ve heard a lot the last few years, and that I disagree with.

First, that anger is a great motivator, or that it is necessary to fuel action.

Second, Don’t Know Thy Enemy.

Third, Compassion is a limited resource.

To be continued soon. Sorry for the delay on this one, dear reader/s.