Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Poverty and self-awareness

John Greenan, one of my partners here at CDM, sent me a link to Chris Kelly's creative essay that appeared last Sunday (August 19) on The Huffington Post (Learning to Loathe Yourself: Peggy Noonan and How To Be a Conservative Pundit).

What impressed me about his post was not the embedded political debate, but his commitment to understand the reality facing people who live in poverty.

At the end of his lengthy comments, Kelly quotes George Orwell from The Road to Wigan Pier:

At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her--her sacking apron, 
her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold.... She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and 
looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have
ever seen.

It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that "It isn't the same for them as it would be for us," and that people bred in the 
slums can imagine nothing but the slums.

For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her--understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe."


The assumptions we make about others can be powerfully positive or downright crushing. It is essential that we come to grips with and take seriously the self-understanding of others.

Orwell's insights are brilliant. They afford the subject of his analysis the respect she had earned by living in her very concrete, extremely harsh and well-understood reality.

Frankly, many of us middleclass types just don't get it.



OzarkAngler said...

Great blog page. Very thoughtful and relevant. And it's nice to see something that uses the phrase "social justice" that doesn't scream at me from way out in far left field somewhere.

Karen Shafer said...

"Frankly, many of us middleclass types just don't get it."

You are absolutely right about this. And it's hard for us to move out of 'not getting it' because 'getting it' defies every single assumption about a comfortable life (which I'm quite fond of, by the way -- no vow of poverty here): one assumption in particular, that we are where we are because we FOR SURE deserve it, and that 'they', people living in poverty and homelessness, are where they are because, in some way, they are unworthy and therefore fundamentally different from us.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. I took breakfast this morning to a woman whom I had found sitting on a curb as I drove from taking my granddaughter to her private preschool in my comfortable car. The woman was very thin, not clean, and carried her belongings in a plastic bag. As I handed her the food, something in me so much wanted to blame her and condemn her for her situation (though I know better.) But I wanted to, because it is so painful to see people in our own town living in such misery, and it is easier to reject them than to face our own vulnerability.