The Compassion Conundrum
It has become common to say we have an opiate epidemic. And it’s true. The numbers are staggering. Overdose deaths, crowded emergency rooms, orphaned children. We’ve had a War on Drugs for over a generation, but now the drugs are waging war on us.
But sometimes, I don’t think what we have is a drug crisis at all. What we have, I believe, is a famine of empathy, a crisis of compassion.
Case in point: I recently attended a community forum in a Cincinnati suburb on the topic of a needle exchange program.
Things got ugly pretty quickly.
Across the country, needle exchanges have been shown to be an effective part of an overall strategy for reducing the impact of the opiate epidemic. In these programs, addicts trade used needles for clean. These programs have been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of infectious diseases, in particular HIV and Hepatitis C. Just as importantly, they create points of contact in which addicts, some of whom are homeless, can access health services and addictions treatment.
Earlier this year, needle exchange finally got start in Cincinnati. It’s a Hamilton County program, but so far, it has only been implemented within city limits. There are now three sites in the city where a van shows up once a week for three or four hours. The van holds a team of nurses and social workers who do the exchanges, needle for needle. They also give out information, do pregnancy tests, and build relationships. Sometimes, the exchange becomes an opportunity for the addict to seek help.
It happened seven times in the first month of this year. And the program is only getting started.
The Hamilton County health department had hoped to spread the program out into the suburbs. The Health Department asked the trustees of Anderson Township, the suburb just east of where I live, to consider extending the program into their community. Hence, the forum. They made a similar request in a western suburb.
It’s a program that has proven helpful across the country; it’s a program that’s proven helpful here. It’s been shown to be safe and effective. It isn’t the only thing we need to do to turn this epidemic around, but it’s part of a solution.
None of that seemed to matter to some people in Anderson Township. At least half of the two hundred or more people who came to the forum, were there to speak in favor of the measure.
But the people who were against it were louder.
The opponents were well-organized and passionate. And they made it clear that they intend to campaign against any of the trustees who voted in favor of the measure. As it turned out, only one of the three Anderson Township trustees voted in favor of the program, and it was turned down.
In the forum I attended, some of the remarks had a veneer of rationality: opponents brought up statistics and studies that purported to prove the studies in favor of needle exchange wrong.
But other remarks showed just how thin the veneer really was.
In one of the more blatant statements, a woman named the three sites in the city where the needle exchange and said, “I’ve been to all these neighborhoods. And none of them look like Anderson.”
Is it the racism or the classism that is more repugnant here?
Speaker after speaker warned of the danger of bringing “them” into the community. But the problems “they” will bring into the neighborhood are already here. Even in Anderson, there are pockets of poverty where the use of opiates and meth are endemic. But the problem is not just the poverty pockets. The opiate problem is an everybody problem. Addiction does not respect racial or class boundaries.
Overdose incidents in Anderson outnumber those in Mount Washington, the Cincinnati neighborhood where I live.
A day or so after the forum, in response to a news article about the forums, a reader going by the name of “What A City” had this to say: “Sorry. It's a lifestyle choice that leads to the addiction. They created their problem. Let them and their family find the solution. Can't find the sympathy for drug addicts that the social program mercenaries seem to find.”
It’s Interesting that, so often, commentators like this refuse to use their real names.
“What a City” can’t find sympathy for those suffering from addiction and he expects them to find a solution on their own. It’s all very simple for someone like “What a City,” who is convinced that, if only these addicts (or poor people, or minorities, or women, or whoever) would just learn to stop feeling sorry for themselves and just . . . What? It’s nearly impossible to say, because What-a-City does not offer a solution. Nor did any of the opposition speakers at the forum.
Comments like this are why I like to say that what we have is not so much an opiate crisis as an empathy crisis. Pitilessness toward those who suffer and mockery toward those who would try to help. How do you respond to callousness like that?
I think the problem begins when we develop our world-view by way of theories rather than stories.
For What-a-City, addiction is not a disease, but a “lifestyle choice,” as if addiction were a fad like the Macarena. He knows this because he has looked through the clear lens of his theory and he sees it there, uncluttered by the complication of fact, unblurred by the distortions of empathy and compassion.
But if he listened to stories rather than theories, he might begin to see addicts as people, in all their struggling complexity. He might see that solutions involve a difficult balance of love and tough love. But all this is hard, challenging work, requiring openness and vulnerability.
Which is something, if you’ve been paying attention, I need as well. I have a tendency to shove the people I see as wrong on the issues into a prejudicial corner where I can pin them with a label (“bigot,” “snob,” and so on) and dismiss them. But, “They like ourselves were sick,” says a book I’ve read. It’s just as easy for me to write off people like What-a-City as if is for What-a-City to write off addicts.
In the midst of that heated forum, the woman two seats down, one of those who loudly opposed the needle exchange, tapped me on the arm. She smiled and said, “You dropped your hat on the floor.” She didn’t have to do that. I had made it clear where I stood on the issue at hand, but she did it anyway. It was a small gesture, and probably, in the light of the greater incivility of her stance toward people suffering from addiction, a small, trivial thing. But for the moment, in spite of my opposition to her position, she still managed to see me as a neighbor, something I can’t always manage.
And yet, I can’t expect her to see the neighbor in the suffering addict unless I also see the neighbor in her.
I don’t know what the answer is to this famine of compassion, but I have a notion that it has to start just like that, where we begin to see each other as human beings.
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