August 27, 2009

"Haves" and "Haves Nots"

I've been struggling through these thoughts for two years. I'm sure I'll struggle through them for more to come.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a colleague wherein we were talking about whether or not the support staff (janitors, housekeepers, etc) resented working with people who made so much more money than they did, or were they simply grateful to have a job (isn't it funny how it's merely the contrast that would seemingly create resentment -- if they were working for an equally poor employer 'resentment' wouldn't come up, it seems). This, of course, made me wonder about the contrast between me and those who have so much more money than me. For example, I worked for very wealthy families in Memphis, but I never resented them for having what I couldn't afford. Does Madonna's hair dresser hate Madonna because Madonna lives in a mansion and she doesn't? Do we create resentment by using language to ascribe "you are oppressed" to the 'have nots?' What if we never spoke in terms of oppression -- would people here feel oppressed wherein they are 99.9% of the population? Or do they merely act out the prescription of being oppressed because someone told them they should -- and isn't that just another form of oppression? What then strikes me beyond all that, as I read "The Life of Antony" and he says, "Let none among us have even the yearning to possess. For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us? Why not rather own those things we are able to take with us -- such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality?" I then begin to wonder why we seek to give to the poor our lust for stuff. We wish to "save Africa" but we're just giving them stuff. To be honest with you, here I live among the impoverished daily and I walk to work and I pass shanties verily standing and yet I still ask myself, "Who are the poor?" I see that they have clothes and food and family and friends. Will I be able to be at peace if I give them a TV or a wok? Can I sigh in relief at last if I give them a decorative pillow from Pottery Barn? Or maybe they will no longer be "the poor" if a wealthy CEO buys them a Rolex watch that I couldn't afford either. Diamond earrings might go well with their khangas! It seems to me that because we've lost our way, and we, too, don't know how to want what is profitable and good and eternal that we don't really know to take care of the poor. We want for them to have a washing machine. Is this their salvation? Once again I come to the place where I begin to wonder if the division between us/them isn't between me and Ugandans passing me as they carry water in a jerry can on their heads for making the evening meal, but rather the separation between us/them is between me and the Saints... among whom some of those walking with jerry cans on their heads might be numbered. In this regard it seems that I am among the 'have nots.' Certainly I understand that I am afforded a wealth that doesn't belong to those around me, but it is merely passing wealth, and relative at that. There is a responsibility in that, just as there is with any talent we are given. What if, instead of engaging in a language of "we are here to save you and have the means to do so" we instead entered into a language that encouraged all of us 'have nots' to share what we have in order to move toward what is lasting? How would our perspective on Africa and "the poor" change? How would we change if we realized we were on the wrong side of the dividing line?


elizabeth said...

These are good questions. It feels very postmodern to say, I do not have an answer, but I do not know what else I would say.

I do think the loneliness and isolation of the west is also a poverty.

Stacy said...

Elizabeth -- can you make visible to me what it is that makes you think the West is lonely and isolated? I don't necessarily disagree, but I'm curious as to what makes you say that.

The reason I'm curious is because people often attribute a communal life to Africans that isn't quite as rose-colored as it might seem. Their communal nature is often by matter of survival rather than personhood (and can be quite harsh and crippling because of it), and there is no true community without personhood. It seems, in that regard, that loneliness and isolation might plague the West, the East, and all other directions equally.

What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I think the great
American focus is to try to fix everything. And so we look at people who have less, materially, than we do and we feel, believe that we need to fill in the gap. We think we can make up the difference so to speak, so often we give them things that they didn't even know they needed.
And neglect the things they really do need, which might even be spiritual needs.
I could write a book about this but I am not going to tonight.