Published: February 15th 2011February 14th 2011
This next blog is the second of two blogs that share reflections and experiences on power, poverty and a cementing of who I am in society.
Recently, I reacted strongly against my $50 safety-net. I shared this thought process with someone close and she pushed back a bit, stirring me to get out of the "trials of the middle class" attitude. And this is where I have been sitting for the past couple of days. I was reminded of the story of the starving millionaire who doesn’t eat in an attempt to express solidarity with the poor and hungry. Yet, I do not feel like I that. I feel like I know what I would do with the money. I feel like I am trying to enact that today. My YAV year is not a year away from how I want to live. I am realizing that I will probably always desire to work in the public sector, to always confront social inequalities, and to live below my "means." I do not think this is an issue of what do I do with this power. But I think it is a fuller conceptualization of who I am in society, and the wanting to right this system that perpetuates these unjust notions, ideals, and values.
For example, today I was in the central public library, checking out the Boff book, when in the lobby I had a bit of a conversation with a homeless man. As we parted ways outside, I realized that regardless of how I treated him, prior to that conversation there was this palpable sense that his life and mine are distinctly different.
"Woe is me. I have the safety net," she said. “So get up and do something about it.” I laughed, as I thought about that. And I still chuckle. It has not, nor will it ever be a question of what do I do. But rather I think I am at the point were one feels this injustice as embodied by your own self.
I do not know if this holds weight. I do not know if these are legitimate thoughts. But I think, just think: the power of empathy comes from being able to recognize, and understand yourself as a part of the system practically, not theoretically. Maybe I'm young and stupid. Maybe I'm too white and too middle class. Maybe I'm too academically minded. But this is my point: To have empathy, to truly understand and relate to another individual who suffers from social inequalities that are caused by my very being in society, one needs to feel
that safety net, reject it and move on. The ideological shift that occurs here is one that requires you to do more than know
that the system is wrong. Knowing and Feeling are two different things. I do not claim to know what poverty, homelessness, racism feel like. Yet I do know, more fully, what it means to be the systematic cause of those ills. Capitalism requires that there be the rich and the poor. That is a given. But what the rich and the poor look like are up to us.
Since that moment in the car where I realized my shame, turned red, and drove away from the GRE testing center, I have come across many situations that seem to well-define this ideological shift of rejecting the safety net, and moving on. Recently, I organized a House Meeting training with a local Presbyterian congregation. These are public, open, honest and authentic spaces where citizens come and share the pressures that they and their families are experiencing. During this time, a woman shared an interesting story. She is deeply concerned about the safety of her block due to a large presence of drugs. Nearly her entire family lives on a single block. When visiting her home a couple of weeks back, I realized I had entered into a new sense of community. The sense of family, of welcome, of loyalty was so high I could feel myself floundering in its peaceful presence. To have grown up, have kids, and see your kids have kids on the same block ties you to a community in ways seldom people in the United States understand. To see the destruction by drugs ripple through the community is another feeling completely.
She shared her fright at how her grandson now knows several places where he can obtain drugs. She hears drug deals go down weekly. This is her community. Yet, because she is of the middle class her stake in these issues is liminal: though her ties to the community are deep, the manner in which she participates in this ugly facet is entirely up to her. And so, when finished with sharing her story, the question was asked, “Would you be interested in holding a meeting with other neighborhood parents to discuss what you can do to address this issue in your community?” An instant, stark, “Yes,” was given. This is what these meetings are for: To understand our roles in our own communities, how we are invested in them, and entrusted with the responsibility to care for them.
This hits at the other side of the story, called relationships. And I noted this in one of my very first posts. One might break the system slowly and surely through building and creating equitable, right relationships with others. By treating everyone like a person with dignity. But I think, one can do this more fully, with greater insight and honesty when one understands one’s place in society. I cannot cure all diseases. I cannot provide housing for all the homeless. I cannot save the world. But that is not what is asked of me. I feel that to listen and know these stories, then not to act is a larger action than to act without listening. Creating relationships is a necessary part of any community transformation.
I don't know. I have so much to learn. But I now feel and know a bit more fully who I am in society. I am more familiar with and in new ways have come to understand how education is a key toward a better life. Again, I am innately placed above that bar. Not because I am more intelligent or capable, but because I was born into that. Yet, I do not sit and wait for this safety-net to be taken away from me. Nor do I quit that for a year or two by escaping and "doing a year of service." But rather I see that I cannot quit the $50 safety-net, that it will always be with me, and so I have no task but to bring my experience in honesty and with a willingness to reaffirm the primary reason why I have decided to mold my life to being more "downwardly mobile," and "living below my means." I must work to destroy what I am in society. Or raise everyone else up to me. But the two seem synonymous.
This is not done by leaving my place in society. I cannot. Arguably, I will always be male, white, middle class, and heterosexual. But how I act, how I live is the question. And in a world that is pushing toward individualistic ideals and values, I have no other choice but to work to destroy my sector of society. I have no other choice but to embrace the realization that if the church is to be the church there has to be a new church. That the unilateral, hierarchical ways of life that are established through designations of purity and uncleansiness and so on are alienating, and untrue. That the access toward a better life through education should be equal to all. Destroying who I am must begin with a full recognition of who I am, and where I am in society. And that comes from an experience of it. Not a theoretical understanding. But an economic (I realized that making 2,000 a year is more stressful than I originally thought), social and educational development. To empathize with the other, sometimes we have to fully recognize that we are the "other." And who and what and how that means. I am angry and who I am because I am that which provides the unjust boundaries that prevent others from having that ease. But I cannot more remove it than I can my left eye.
These are all thoughts on the system. They leave out the relational aspects of life that so often disregard the world as it is, and push us to the world we desire it to be. Yet, every day I am reminded that we have that dichotomy because the world is not as it should be, but is the world as it is.
As so we move. We push. We develop and we understand, step by step. Through and within and without relationships to come to see most fully what the world is, and how we can push it to the world as it should be.