When you think about it, much of our Western mythos revolves around romanticizing the poor and poverty. That is not wholly true; it is an Eastern mythos as well. The lack of possessions, of money, of the responsibility and relationship to things is presented as a state of being that makes one more generous, kinder and spiritual.
Bear with me here, I am going to ask you to do something that is a little bit difficult.
Have you ever wondered why this is? And how this came to be?
With few exceptions, our major religions were founded by rich persons who chose to be poor. The exceptions, belief systems that arose from someone who began poor, then developed into religions that are notorious for their wealth and holdings. But then again, within all major religions, the leaders are always wealthy or, nested in wealth held by the institution, so that they may still appear poor.
Have you ever sat down and thought about the nature of those transitions?
How did poverty become synonymous with humility? Humility has nothing to do with begging or being in need.
Go a little further and look at our social service systems, the secular religions of the world. Without exception, the definition and understanding of what the poverty stricken need to feel self-worth etc. and so on has come from people who have never known want in their life.
I volunteer with Street Sights, the homeless advocacy newspaper in Rhode Island. I am a staff writer, among others things, and all this has been slowly percolating within me as I have watched the “revolving door” in action. The revolving door is when people who have, and have always had, come down to volunteer once – and then never come back, despite their vocal protestations of being deeply vested in wanting to become a part of this advocacy effort. In this instance, the clear factor influencing their flight is the fact that there are real live homeless people working on the paper.
I volunteer with Hospice and have watched people come in and invest the time to go through 2 months of training, a course of very expensive (Hospice pays) vaccinations, get assigned to cases and then disappear after 3 visits. Why? Because the people are dying and dying in ways that are not beautiful moments of self acceptance, forgiveness and spiritual revelation. Sometimes they are dying with blood vomiting from their mouth, their families screaming over their beds, and in complete denial that they are about to go.
Sometimes they are dying alone, by circumstance or choice – and perhaps that is hardest of all to take because it strips away any cushion we have placed between ourselves and our own state of loneliness.
Lonely people tend to be very angry people.
But their anger is repressed or emotionally exchanged for something more acceptable because, particularly in the Western world, we have evolved the mythos that being alone provides one with a state of self-sufficiency, grace and peace that is admirable and enough for the healthy existence of the human life. It’s not.
Solitude is very different from being alone.
I just got done reading a recent white paper on anger and loneliness that was more than a little uncomfortable to read because I was in mid stream of justifying and rationalizing my own loneliness as being a state of “self-discovery and healing.” It’s not.
It is within solitude that self-discovery and healing occurs and solitude can be achieved, and is best achieved, when in relation to others. Because solitude is a state of being remote or isolated from others, if you have no relation to others to begin with, you cannot achieve that state. If you have no relations to others, you are alone, and the state you are in is loneliness. With loneliness comes anger, whereas with solitude comes introspection ans self-confrontation because one is always aware that there is the promise of a return to relations.
It is easy for someone who has not known poverty to adopt poverty as a means of living because there is always a path to return to not being poor even if that path is only the memory of being not poor. The education, the sheer health of not being poor in youth, makes the choice of adult poverty bearable; if one prepares oneself for poverty and justifies it as a moral choice – then one bears it well.
There is a woman who made much bally-ho about taking a sabbatical (first clue) to go live as a homeless person for several months. During the course of this venture she would go stay with friends on occasion and discuss what she was discovering over dinner and wine. She wrote several newspaper articles about her special understanding of the homeless, missing completely that while she did gain a closer look, the fact that she could leave at will denied her “special understanding.”
Someone who is born into poverty or who is thrust, unprepared and without rationalizations, into poverty – will not bear it well. It will be a grinding, soul-destroying thing.
The rich man, who chooses to remain in a state of having, who looks upon the man born into poverty and want will decide that the poor man must reach a state of having in order to achieve spiritual, emotional and mental comfort and stability.
The rich man, who chooses to be poor, will look upon the man born into poverty and want and decide that the poor man must reach a state of acceptance and celebration of his state of not-having as the beginnings of all spiritual, emotional and mental comfort and stability.
In either case, the poor man is given the message that they are lacking in appreciation of their life.
In neither case is the reality and truth of poverty addressed. Yet both instances are the mindsets that have shaped our Western and Eastern institutions that profess to bring service and assistance to the poor.
Is it any wonder that poverty, for the most part, is a state that is generational and socially hereditary? Those ‘with’ need the poor to exist as justification for their having or choosing not to have. In either instance, the core nature of love – universal, brotherly love – that of the respect for the dignity, integrity and worth of human life – is missing because the poor are placed in service of justifying the choices of those for whom pragmatic reality is divorced from emotional experience because the coin of sympathy has become more valued than empathy.
I can think of no better insult that could be thrown my way, in this day and age, then to be called ‘compassionate.’ God save me from that height and intensity of sympathy for my fellow man for what it really means is that I will have become so selfish and self-centered that the plight of another human being is only recognizable to me as I can relate it to my own experiences and emotional history.
I strive for empathy. I suffer towards the state of being in which I can relate to a stranger and their life because it is that stranger’s life and experience and emotional history that I feel, for I have set myself aside completely in their hour of need.
It is their home they are trying to find, not the home I want to make for them. Their life that is passing, not my need to have surety in the face of my own mortality. Their hunger that must be fed and not my spiritual justification.
c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.