Home > "Sweat," A reminder of the need for compassion

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“…Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition…” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)


               “In the fell clutch of circumstance,” many are unable to be as strong as William Ernest Henley wrote in Invictus, i.e., “I have not winced nor cried aloud.”  “Under the bludgeonings of chance,” they could not assert, “My head is bloody, but unbowed.”  Therefore, we need to be mindful of people’s difficulties in coping when they are caught in a web of adverse circumstances.  We should show compassion for such people because of the truth contained in “but for grace of God, go I.” 

It is easy to do as I did when I expressed unreserved disgust because it was reported that a poor unemployed White man said he strongly disagreed with “Obamacare” but, at the same time, he did not know he could afford treatment for his major illness primarily because he obtained health insurance through the “Affordable Care Act.”  Why should I show compassion for him when his racism and related ignorance extended beyond President Obama to me and others?  Actually, when it was reported that many less-educated middle-aged Whites were dying younger and that the heroin epidemic was no longer an “inner-city” problem, it took considerable restraint not to utter, “The chickens came home to roost.”

It seemed ludicrous that, in Pennsylvania small towns, displaced workers were not deterred by the fact that, although POTUS 45 claimed he would stop jobs from leaving America, his multi-billion dollar enterprises extended to Azerbaijan, Brazil, China, India, Istanbul, Panama, South Korea,  and elsewhere. 

My thinking and related emotional reactions regarding the foregoing were significantly altered after watching Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat for a second time.  “…The story of Sweat reflects that of many small-town residents who have felt the loss of America’s core industries and the resulting despair, broken families, shattered lives, and deferred dreams that lead many to question the true meaning of our democracy…” (Gwendolyn Quinn: April 12, 2017). (Scene below from the play) 

My biggest “take away” from Sweat was the need to show compassion for those whose lives have been torn asunder by societal upheavals, even if their responses are of an anti-social and/or self-destructive nature.   As opposed to simply criticizing those who behave in intemperate ways, perhaps it would be better to focus on the circumstances that produced them and how to change those circumstances. 

Recall that being gainfully employed is integral to one’s self-esteem, the extent to which one is satisfied with their family life, the positive sense one has regarding one’s status in society, and, in sum, one’s overall sense of psycho-social well-being.   Unable to cope effectively with unemployment, as was the case for several Sweat characters, people often “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol.  They try to reduce their sense of inferiority by perceiving themselves as superior to those of different races and/or religions.   As was the case with two men in Sweat, others engage in criminal activities that lead to significant prison terms.  In general, depression runs rampant, one’s overall health deteriorates, and people die at earlier ages.    

Sweat’s portrayal of long-term unemployment reminded me of Frantz Fanon’s description of racism’s impact, i.e., “…In other words, I begin to suffer from not being a white man to the degree that the white man imposes discrimination on me, makes me a colonized native, robs me of all worth, all individuality, tells me that I am a parasite on the world, that I must bring myself as quickly as possible into step with the white world, that I am a brute beast, that my people and I are like a walking dung-heap that disgustingly fertilizes sweet sugar cane and silky cotton, that I have no use in the world"  (Black Skin, White Masks, 1967). 

 In Sweat, as the factory lays off people, ships jobs to Mexico, and locks out workers, the main characters are reduced to “walking dung-heaps,” people without hope and self-respect because they are so mired in misery.  Their town became a forgotten town, a place that doesn’t matter anymore.  Robbed of all worth, friends became enemies; newly formed hatred contributed to a race-related brutal beating of a Hispanic worker; and anomie reigned supreme.

The post-industrial economic downfall has grasped millions of Americans in its vicious claws, causing them to hurt so badly that they permit the worst to flow from them in terms of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.  To be sure, their wrong doings are inexcusable and, when they rise to a criminal nature, should be punished accordingly.  At the same time, they are also in need of compassion from those who would make ours a more just society.  Being compassionate might make one conscious of the root causes of the long-termed unemployed’s distress and help move one to assist with the alleviation of the circumstances that gave rise to these negative conditions.  Consider, for example, “Mary Lou” who hates “Obamacare.” 

An African American who has undergone years of racial oppression, who watched carefully how the first African American President was treated, and who knows America is far from being a post-racial society might wish to hurl invectives at “Mary Lou,” but the probable result would be further alienation of “Mary Lou.”  On the other hand, compassion for all “Mary Lous” might cause one to consider the economic and political circumstances that made “Mary Lous” possible and, in turn, focus on how one can contribute to the alleviation of those circumstances for “Mary Lous.”  

One might focus, for example, on getting out an informed voter turnout during the next local, state, and national elections.   This might have made for a significantly different outcome in the April 2017 Ferguson Mayoral election where, despite an African American voting majority, the White male problematic mayor was re-elected, winning by a margin of 56% to 44% against an African American woman who would have become the first African American mayor. 

For those who wish to engage in what they believe to be a more “revolutionary” approach, they would do well to consider the following from Martin Luther King Jr’s Anti-Vietnam speech: “…I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  …we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.   …The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. …We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation…”

In the long run, Americans cannot prevail by doing things such as dropping the “Mother of all Bombs” on Afghanistan, sending “Dreamers” to somewhere that is not their home, building more prisons and filling them disproportionately with African Americans, and implementing economic policies that primarily benefit the “One Percent.”


Jack L. Daniel

Freed Panther, Co-Founder

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor


April 24, 2017

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