Pick a Number

Giving a shit in this country is like being outside in a rainstorm. Everything leaks. Stagnant water expands, brown, in the low places. Sticks break and leaves plummet to the sidewalk. When I angle the umbrella, it blows inside out. When I close it and run, the rain comes in sheets.

I don’t know what to care about, though the answer is fairly obvious. I should care about everything.

Caring about everything takes far more space than anyone has under their ribcage, but I’m not sure if that’s even the problem. Arguing about everything takes far more breath than anyone has in their lungs. Marching about everything takes far more steps than anyone has in their soles. But everything is parts; we see the problem in flashes. We grasp at ripples in a pond but missed the frog as it dove.

The whole is poverty. It has to be poverty.

Racism is more than an input, it’s an output. Centuries of overlapping injustices produced a yawning disparity in family wealth. Can racism ever be gone when that disparity persists?

Health insurance is a stop-gap. Millions of people don’t have the jobs that provide that stability while others have such staggering wealth that they need not concern themselves with such trivialities. Is the problem the uninsurance or the indignity at its source? I don’t think the former can be adequately fixed while the latter persists.

We’re concerned with inequality, but the injustice doesn’t live on Park and 66th. It’s in the crumbling high-rise across the Harlem River. War kills and maims and separates, but the poor carry more than their weight. Women make less than eighty cents to a man’s dollar, but eighty cents cuts deeper when the dollar is barely livable.

Dr. King railed against poverty in a land of abundance and we’ve grown more abundant by every measure since he was gunned down fifty years ago. Focusing doesn’t mean ignoring other social problems. It means seeing the insidious ways in which they impoverish. Improving the station of the poor requires looking squarely at how that poverty strikes women with greater force, children with with a sharper edge, and immigrants to more devastating effect. Improving the station of the poor requires remedies for the prejudice that exacerbates want. Addressing poverty in all its forms lifts up everyone who suffers from its compounding pressures.

Caring about everything is overwhelming, but the frenzy can be distilled to a single feeling. Compassion for those without opportunity is at the core of liberal politics, thrown into ever sharper relief by the reality that conservative politics is defined more each day by the lack thereof. Compassion contains multitudes. It focuses and condenses a dizzying array of drops and rivulets into a flood.

Rain disorients because it’s blinding, total, a distraction from the simple task of getting from one door to the next. It’s impossible to choose which leak to plug or which step to avoid. But the problem isn’t the muddy soup on the sidewalk. The problem is atmospheric. I can’t see what’s right in front of me, darkening the sky.

Poverty is in the clouds here, clinging heavy to those it doesn’t suffocate.

Compassion has to be it.