In sentencing hearings, defense attorneys often speak to the judge about the circumstances of the defendant’s childhood, neighborhood, and social background, using the term “social capital” as in the defendant didn’t have much of it, so his possibilities were circumscribed. Almost as if he were condemned by fate to end up in the criminal justice system and therefore should not be judged harshly. I don’t like to think of our upbringing as a life sentence, but I also know that we cannot escape it entirely by pure force of will. Moral fortitude alone is not sufficient. It truly takes the social capital of a village to raise a child.
What is social capital? To me, it is defined by what you have and know, and who you know. Followed by what they have and know, and who they in turn know. And how willing they all are to help you, in an ever-widening social circle. If you have people in your life who know how to help you but simply refuse to, or who want to help but don’t know how, you are not going to get very far. It is like going to a dear friend for loan, when she is as broke as you are, then approaching a wealthy bank, which turns you down. You still end up with nothing. You need people who are able and willing to share their knowledge and resources with you.
A more thorough and elegant definition than mine was written a century ago in 1916 in an article by Hanifan: “Goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit … and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.”
I like this concept that helping each other helps the whole community. This is all cheerful great stuff, but for those who were not born into this kind of a social safety net and ladder, the required sympathy and fellowship are hard to come by. And we as a society pay the consequences, but not in equal measure. Not by a long shot.
I remember one of our young friends expressing that he could afford to donate a substantial amount of his income because he doesn’t ever expect to be homeless or hungry. So there was little risk and great benefit to his donating. I shared that with one of my friends, who was silent for a moment and then asked if I felt the same. I do. I can think of many people who would take me in for months or even years at a time, as I would for them. And have, on several occasions. There are a great many beds and sofas between me and sleeping outside. And a great many more kitchens between me and actual hunger. The resulting feeling of security alone is one of the most priceless gifts of my social capital.
In court, I encounter many people and observe many cases where people literally have nowhere to go – no functioning friend or relative who has stable housing where they can stay. I cannot truly imagine what that would feel like. I cannot stretch my mind beyond sympathy for their situation, and an ongoing reminder to myself that I cannot know the sufferings of a person so differently placed. What a wealth of friends and family I was born into. A true blessing of fate.
Think about people we judge so harshly because they parent terribly or engage in domestic violence. Did they have wonderful stable parents who demonstrated how to go about this mysterious business of being married and raising a family? What kind of examples, what kind of support did they have to learn from? Beyond emotional stability, what about the economics of a stable life? How many kids decide to go to college and actually graduate, if they don’t have any family members or friends who are educated? It is a leap in the dark. How do we suppose people are to get healthy relationships and good jobs if they have never seen it done? There is an almost infinite number of simple steps to get a good job, or to build a lasting and healthy relationship.
Someone has to guide each one of us, one way or another, through each of these steps before we can walk that path. It takes countless mentors, supporters and teachers. And even with all of that, we are quite capable of failing miserably at it. It seems incredible that anyone at all is functional. It reminds me of a lovely cartoon by the late Callahan – a huge stadium filled with banners welcoming members if I remember correctly to the “National Convention for Children of Functional Families” and there were just two or three people in the whole huge stadium. We all of have our shortcomings, and so much of our successes come from a whole series of helping hands. I try to keep that in mind when I find myself judging someone for falling short of my expectations.