I was recently embroiled in a long (and undoubtedly pointless) internet conversation on the topic of prostitution (don’t worry – I had already checked the jobs websites that day; honest). There was a marked lack of empathy for the women who find themselves in this line of work, and it occurred to me fairly early on that it largely boils down to the old chestnut of choices versus chances. You’d imagine that this would be a reasonably non-contentious viewpoint, but no.
In our hyper-individualized culture, autonomy is the highest value. And given our cultural history as a nation, this is not entirely surprising. In spite of this tendency towards negative freedom we remain enslaved to authority figures. That’s a little baffling, but there you have it. And along with this attitude of Me and Mine – My Way comes a sense of great self-righteousness at having earned everything I’ve gotten and therefore being deserving of it. Implicit in this perspective is the latent idea that those who have nothing deserve nothing, as they have earned nothing. The unfortunate problem with this comfy perspective is that it neglects to take into account the multitude of factors preceding our personal successes and failures.
When I was a child, my lower working class parents took an inheritance from the death of my grandfather and moved us from our lower working class town to a middle class town about twenty miles away. My father had left school at 14 and my mother at 15. Their aim was clear: to have their children grow up in a context where educational and material success in life was not an option, but an inevitability. It was a smart move. We were the poorest family on the street and I was the poorest girl in my class, but the importance of education had been drummed into me from birth and there were high expectations for me, which I duly attempted to satisfy. I’m now very grateful that they took that decision when I was four years old, as I’m not sure if I would have made it to university if all of my classmates had dropped out after their junior cert, as remains the norm in the town that we originally come from.
As part of my current MA I spend a day a week in a prison. The work is a profound joy and a privilege for me. Many of the men I spend time with are quite beautiful people. What distinguishes me from them is not in fact their crimes but my privilege. I am quite sure that if my father had raped me every night and my mother had drank the children’s allowance that I would be in quite a different state today. There is not so much to be said for choices after all, I find. Choices are good and making good choices is especially good, but only in the context of chance. To choose between two dreadful options is not really to make a choice, is it? From a theological perspective, anything I have been given has been given to me by God, and therefore my response to it ought to be one of sheer gratitude and a ready willingness to part with it. This means letting go of my ego (or self?) which is, of course, easier said than done. But hey, why not.
I suppose my aim in all this rambling is simply to pinpoint what I consider to be a fundamental truth: we are much more a product of our chances than our choices, and bearing that in mind thankfully releases us from our interminable need to judge everyone around us. Thank goodness for that.