Shades of Gray

I woke up to face a reality I did not expect to endure. It’s a reality that never occurred to me, really. A reality that suggests I may be out of touch with reality in some fundamental ways; ways that suggest I live a life detached from the cruel foundation of the lives of so many others. Let me explain.

A young woman I know announced to the world this morning, via Facebook, that her relationship with a college at which she had been teaching for five years is ending. I know nothing more than that; but as I try to read between the lines, I think I read that it’s not her choice. It’s not something she decided to do. With my limited knowledge of her circumstances, I think her departure is apt to be a painful dislocation. I suspect she has very limited resources, very limited income; the termination of her employment with the college could be catastrophic for her. Again, I don’t know the details; it’s possible she is leaving to accept another opportunity that will put her on solid financial footing. But I suspect not. If my suspicions are correct, she is a step closer to financial ruin.

I am just an acquaintance. I am not a close friend. What can I do? What should I do? What is the appropriate role of an acquaintance who may be witnessing the financial collapse of another person’s life? If I were a man of means, I might offer financial aid. But I’m not a man of means. Yet I am in far better shape, financially, than she is. At what point does one opt to suffer a little to alleviate the suffering of someone else?

Would I think I have an obligation if I thought she were a friend and not simply an acquaintance? At what point does an acquaintance become a friend? Where is the dividing line between compassion and obligation? Where does one draw the line between wishing one could help and feeling compelled to do so?

I suppose the first step to answering all of my questions would be to get more facts. But it’s hard to ask someone—a mere acquaintance—if she needs help. And it’s inadvisable, I think, to ask the question about whether help is needed unless the follow-up is, unquestionably, an offer to provide it.

Shades of gray. Too damn many shades of gray.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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