Compassion. While it is easy to say this word, it is often difficult to truly feel it, feel it for those, like the homeless, whose lives are so very different from ours.

Today we continue to argue about what help our government should provide to the less fortunate, for those who suffer from poverty, illness, lack of education; for those who are victims of discrimination, inequality and injustice. We are too often polarized between those who say that as the government is for all it should take care of all, and those who say that doing so is socialism. Not to do so is heartless, say those who support such government action. To do so destroys our freedom, say those who oppose such government action.

But how can we think clearly and compassionately about this issue? How can we break out of our life, our insulated, safe bubble, to understand what we want our government to do? In 1971, the philosopher John Rawls wrote the book "A Theory of Justice" that contained the idea of a veil of ignorance. When we argue about how others should be helped we, behind a veil of ignorance, should think of ourselves before we are born, not knowing what our lives will be like. We could be genetically gifted or severely limited; we could be robustly healthy or inflicted with a serious, painful, lifelong illness. We could have a well-off, supportive family, prospering in a peaceful neighborhood, or live constantly in poverty and violence.

Thus, he asks us to do what is difficult for all of us: to put on the veil of ignorance and imagine ourselves in the shoes, in the lives, of others, especially those who suffer. We live in a society that tends to ignore the role fortune, luck, plays in our lives. The myth of success is that all that happens is because of our effort, and if we are not successful we have simply not worked hard enough. But tell that to those who have been denied good lives because of discrimination, tell that to those who have been born with autism, tell that to those who have grown up in the streets as children.

I have been very fortunate. I grew up in a prosperous blue collar, white collar, neighborhood. I was loved and supported by my mom, dad, grandmother, aunt and uncle. I was born with the ability to succeed academically, and went to public schools that helped and prepared me to get my college and university degrees. I was lucky to be offered a teaching position at Bakersfield College where I have met so many wonderful colleagues and friends, and have loved and been inspired by being with my students. I have a wonderful daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren who I can visit regularly, and I have a special sister. Yes, I have had sorrows in my life like the unexpected, tragic death of my son, but I have lived and live a good life.

Yet, I must think, imagine, lives other than mine. Think of those who have not had the breaks and luck I have. When I drive downtown to write each morning I pass the homeless sleeping on sidewalks or benches, sadly dressed, sometimes walking and talking to the air or taking cigarette butts from empty ashtrays outside the coffee shop where they occasionally ask for water, where I sit with the comfort of words. How can their lives be improved, made better? Shelter for all, or not. Health care for all, or not. Childcare for all, or not. Affordable college for all, or not. A living wage for all, or not. These are some of the crucial questions that face us regarding our government.

There are two veils of ignorance. The first is the one we all wear, the one that keeps us from really knowing about, understanding the lives of those who suffer. The other is the one we can wear and ask ourselves what we would want our government to do to help us if we were unfortunate, the suffering.

As we debate and argue what our government should do for the unfortunate, we must, at least, wear that veil of ignorance. The veil that widens and deepens our compassion, compassion for all.

Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.