Have you ever had something happen in your life that you thought you REALLY wanted only to discover later that it led you face-to-face with something you would rather have plucked out every last hair on your body one-by-one with a set of tweezers than face? Ever been dealt a horrible card that justified viewing the world from behind a high wall of righteous anger until, further down the road, it dawned on you that without that card and the path it put you on, you never would have reached the much better place you eventually found yourself? Ah yes, nothing quite like being shoved kicking and screaming out of the comfort zone and just plain having to deal with it! How do we know whether the thousand little things that happen in our lives every day can be classified as “good” or “bad”? It’s such a temptation to judge something definitively when it’s happening, especially if it fits into our “bad” category, rather than to try and talk ourselves off the ledge and slow down our hyperventilating long enough to see what will come next.
In terms of how people size up a situation, I think there are “black and white” people in the world and there are “shades of gray” people. I definitely fall into the latter camp (probably why I almost went to law school), though I’m still working on learning to talk myself down from that ledge quicker these days than in the past. Thank goodness for time and the clarity that comes with hindsight. I believe the ability to see both the good and the bad of a situation or a person is what allows us to live civilly and to maintain some level of compassion and humility in a situation that we don’t otherwise truly understand.
A while back I was listening to one of the podcasts that I follow, NPR’s Planet Money. Between February and July, Planet Money did several episodes that followed a Haitian businesswoman named Yvrose Jean Baptiste. Her story is, I think, a tidy example of why it’s tricky to conclude that something is “good” or “bad” in the moment. (For the record, I am summarizing the excellent reporting done by Adam Davidson, Chana Joffe-Walt, and Caitlin Kenney.) It goes like this: Yvrose, a married mother with four children, was introduced to podcast listeners in a Haitian marketplace. She was carrying a big tub of chicken necks on her head and selling them for pennies in the local marketplace shortly after the earthquake. Before the earthquake, she’d had a stable business as a small level wholesaler, which depended on her obtaining regular microloans at a certain rate, purchasing inventory (food items), and extending credit to small retailers under terms that racked up a modest profit for her as she fronted them items to sell at the retail level, and then collected her money a couple of weeks later. This was certainly a sound business model. It’s what US bankers do every day, with the difference being that Yvrose operated with such a thin margin of error, that it was essential that everything go right, always. And for a time in her life, it did. She was able to help purchase a home for her family and send her children to school – rather serious success for a women with only a fifth grade education. And then the earthquake hit.
Not only did Yvrose’s house collapse, but all of the homes of her 10 small retailers were destroyed (a few died in the quake), along with every last bit of the $500 U. S. dollars worth of goods she had distributed to them on the day before the earthquake. But the bank survived, and as she still owed approximately $100 U. S. dollars, payment was expected. So in an act of what I imagine must have been desperate optimism, Yvrose borrowed from a loan shark at a much higher interest rate to buy the chicken necks to sell in hopes of making enough money over time to pay back the microloan, and stay ahead of the loan shark.
The podcast aired and some listeners wanted to help her. An account was set up in her name through a microlending institute in Haiti, and $3,860.00 was donated to her. In March, she withdrew it all (several years’ worth of wages), more money than she had ever seen or held in her hands. She immediately paid off her debt, put some in the bank, refused to buy anything she considered non-essential, and paid for her four children to go live in the countryside with relatives and attend school. The rest of the money she invested in her business.
As a result, Yvrose now has a tin-roofed, semi-permanent stand in a local marketplace where she maintains a broad selection of items. She currently makes $20 to $30 per day, which is life changing money for her and her children. If affords her the ability to access medical care when necessary. Her goal is to get her children through high school, and she no longer has to interrupt their education because she can’t pay the school fees. Her cash flow has stabilized and debt no longer hangs over her head.
It sounds like everything had turned around for Yvrose, and that life was on a good course, except for one dark spot in her story. Shortly after receiving the money and paying off her debts and re-establishing her business, Yvrose’s husband left her. Turns out that the power shift in their household was too much for him to take. Now she worries that she has no man in her tent (she still lives in temporary shelter) to protect her from potential thugs who might want to steal from her, or worse. Despite this, she said that she is generally optimistic about her future for the first time in her life, and who knows, even her husband leaving may prove to be a good thing eventually.
I think the twists and turns of this story are a prime example of why it is a seductive misstep to conclude that something is “good” or “bad” in the moment. Every situation contains what appears to be “good” and “bad” in varying measures, but even those we judge one way or the other, when viewed from some distance may end up looking like the exact opposite of what we initially thought them to be.