Personal experience is defined as the events, successes, failures, sensory input, and thought that create our value systems – the personal experiences throughout our entire life that guide our judgment, our understanding of good and bad, our perception of reality, and our personal opinions.
In the post “The Evolution of Faith,” a metaphor describes how personal experience is very real but also very limited. We ask a fish: What is water? The fish will know water as a collective experience of its lifetime. However, the fish will not know about water in its entirety. The fish will not know the chemistry, the physics, the behavior of water as ice, or the cyclical atmospheric role of water through evaporation, rain, humidity, and the creation of climate – not even the source of the very water that sustains the fish.
This limitation may be satisfactory if a human were a fish. In many ways, a human is much more sophisticated than a fish, particularly as a thinking creature who knows it is always important to understand the greater view of reality beyond personal experience. If a human does not continuously learn about and examine reality, the human mind unnoticeably slows down, shrinks and becomes brittle.
The mariner attended a social gathering with some of his closest friends. All were bright, successful individuals; all were middle class; men and women were present; all were very caring in nature and open to radical thought. As the conversation progressed through the evening, the mariner became aware of how influential personal experience can be. There were several opinions where a simple experience prevented a logical examination of reality, where personal experience disrupted the judgment of broader issues.
Often, the middle class is described as the worrying class: They are in the middle between the wealthy, who do not experience the squeeze of financial insecurity, and the poor, who do not experience the challenge to have a successful future. The wealthy seemingly are interested only in becoming wealthier without regard for the wellbeing of the middle class; the poor are interested only in survival without regard for the morality of the middle class. Therefore, judgmental behavior abounds in the middle class – sustained by worrisome personal experience.
There are many classic middle class prejudices toward the poor: abuse of food stamps, welfare cheaters, lack of a job. The list is much longer. Two aspects of these prejudices occur to the mariner: First, personal experience cannot be the measure of another person’s personal experience – the “walk a mile in my shoes” argument. Second, allowing personal experience to be the primary thought process does not achieve anything – the issue is always broader and more complex than personal experience can explain. If not, behold, the human has become a fish!
It is harder to be judgmental about the wealthy. First, everyone would prefer to be wealthy so the middle class accepts behavior of the wealthy more easily. Second, individuals of wealth can afford to buy their way out of immorality. Is this why the wealthy never go to jail? Is it acceptable to steal billions of dollars from the economy while receiving infusions of capital from the government to cover losses? Is it within the morality of the middle class to destroy the lives of millions of people in order to gain even more wealth? Is it within the morality of the middle class to toss out a government program that is a lifeline for millions in poverty because personal experience noticed a difference in moral behavior?
Readers may ponder these questions. However, ponder them with more than a fish brain.