Imagine my surprise when a client – a client who is seeking Social Security disability benefits – regales me with how wrong she believes the Social Security disability programs are, how they make people lazy and entitled.
“Huh? I thought you wanted me to help you get Social Security disability benefits.”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“But … if it’s wrong … why do you want to do it?”
“I really need it. And I’m not faking. Most everybody else is,” my client informs me.
The client then proceeds to tell me her story, her symptoms, her situation … and it’s essentially the same story, symptoms and situation that most everybody else has told me too. To me, this person is indistinguishable from the ones she is certain are faking.
I feel antagonized by these encounters, as though I am being conscripted into an enemy army. I am required to advocate for this foe. But I am hostile. For a spell I can’t muster compassion, and listen just to build a case for why she sounds like a faker, she’s nothing but a whiner, she’s a drain on society.
I want to serve up the same smelly tripe she vomited onto everyone else she is no better than.
These encounters teach me that the rhetoric about people faking to acquire disability benefits is so pervasive that even disabled people themselves believe it. And it teaches me that we lack imagination about others’ circumstances, and are ill-equipped for empathy.
Several years ago I represented a child in foster care as a volunteer guardian ad litem who “came into care” in an unusual way. Most children in foster care get there because abuse or neglect is reported to authorities, who decide that the child should be taken away from the parents, and they do it. But, in this case, my client’s young mother relinquished her child voluntarily.
She was attempting to support herself and her son on wages earned as a fast food worker. Impoverished and struggling with her son’s health issues, she figured out that she could not manage, and one day, after her shift, she got on a bus with her boy, brought him to child protective services, and surrendered him to the custody of the state … while still wearing her uniform.
The profundity of her choice, and the execution of it, I cannot fathom. I cannot imagine it in any real way. The detail of her wearing a fast food uniform always gets me. I can picture that. And, the fast food uniform positions her into a class of person I would so easily write off as … a nobody. No one particularly interesting or worth knowing.
But, I wish I could know her.
I’ve thought about her and wondered about that shift, imagining her taking customers’ orders that day, counting out change, handing over trays and bags, wiping off tables, sweeping floors … “$ 4.62, please.” Ordinary tasks, ordinary encounters, an ordinary person in an ordinary job bracing herself to give up her son at the end of the day. Extraordinary.
Did she seem distracted? Did she cry? Did she make mistakes? Were any of the customers rude to her?
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th-century. It weaves together so many plots and sub-plots it is impossible concisely to summarize it here. I am hoping you know the story.
Hugo’s heroine, Fantine – also impoverished and desperate, relinquished her young daughter, Cosette, to the care of others more capable (she’d hoped) of providing for Cosette’s needs. In the hands of Victor Hugo, the pain and selflessness of Fantine’s act are so clear, but in real life, without an artist’s assist, we mostly miss it.
I wonder if any of the fast-food patrons that day perceived that the young worker serving them was a 21st-century Fantine?
We think we know. We categorize, pigeon-hole, stereotype and stigmatize …. We know who’s faking, who’s not, who’s worthy, who’s not – it’s always the other guy who’s faking, who isn’t worthy….
We think we know.
We don’t know.
We have no idea what we’re seeing half the time, and declaring that we do, prevents us from looking deeper.