Let’s begin with a story. In my last essay, I mentioned the struggle to advocate for other people without needing to be directly related to the issues they’re having. Today, I want to expand on another part of the struggle for better humanism: avoiding the use of other people’s plights to remind you of the relative ease of your own.
I had a run-in with such an experience just this week — a week in which, on top of my visa application running into a poorly designed user-interface on the government website (shocking, I know), my computer also died. Spectacularly. I am currently typing this on my cellphone, because my days “out” during lockdown are Tuesday and Sunday, and delivery isn’t an option. (Mea culpa, even more than usual, for any errors.)
But in the middle of humming with anxiety about visa status, and scrambling to figure out how to teach two days’ worth of classes on my phone, and putting aside a host of editing and administrative tasks until I could access a proper browser again…
A friend messaged me. A woman who worked at the guard-station for my last home. She’s messaged before — the occasional single Bible quote or picture of Christ on the cross (very common for the women to send all kinds of religious messaging without comment here) — and I’ve known for quite some time that this single woman and solo child has been carrying for her sick mother all alone.
Her mother is dying of renal cancer, and probably bone cancer, too. If my friend’s not at home with her mother, she’s at her 12-hour shifts for the monthly minimum wage, and her mother calls her crying from the pain in her legs.
My friend was telling me all this as updates, including the frustration of her mother’s secondary conditions making basic pain medications untenable. The medication she needed was in Bogotá, and it was expensive, so my friend was simply working as much as she could to try to save up for it. (Her primary job has a flat wage, so she’s also been working whatever odd jobs she can.)
As she told me all this, I kept waiting for an ask that didn’t come. I was ready for it, but my friend is so utterly used to having to do everything on her own that even when I very delicately suggested that I might be able to contribute something, she was reluctant to tell me how much she needed. To her, the number was impossible to imagine being achieved. To me, when she finally told me, it was a pittance. When I told her that it was within my budget, she wasn’t just shocked; she also admitted, in her extreme gratitude, that she and her mother hadn’t been eating most days so that they could save money — because, truly, she didn’t have a peso to spare. She lives in a home without internet, without a stove, with one of those elements that you hook into the wall so you can cook.
And again, she is the sole provider for her dying mum.
And they were both ecstatic to have… what? A pathway to proper treatment for her mother’s condition? No. Palliative care drugs, essentially.
For this aid she told me “Dios te bendiga” and “Dios le pagué” — God bless you, God will repay you — over and over. Because spirituality here is often a spirituality of desperation, when no one else will step up to help. As she told me, no one has ever offered her any such aid before. Everything needs to be earned through hard work, even though the burden she has to bear is staggering compared to some.
Reader, she needed $45USD to provide her dying mother relief.
So, let’s talk today about how to hold horrible truths like that in tension, because our humanism should not need the shock of worldly injustice in order to be coherent and consistent.
We get distracted, though. Of course we do. We’re only human. The real question is: How do we self-correct, once we’ve erred into “my problems could be a whole lot worse”?
Confronting Our Learned Helplessness
The first part of the equation involves recognizing and working on our own behaviour in the face of setback. We won’t need to rely on the shock of others’ hardships if we can better manage our own response-sets to disappointment and failure.
I have a very poor relationship to crisis management, myself, in part because of the “learned helplessness” that behavioural studies have shown can disproportionately affect people with childhood adversity. Childhood is such a critical space for learning resilience, but if nothing you do can keep the raging, vicious, thundering rows at bay in your household — if no amount of good behaviour or good performance at school is going to make the fights stop, or keep you from having to protect your frightened siblings from events under your roof that you’re not allow to tell anyone about because it will make you responsible for the break-up the family… you’re being shaped to expect that nothing you do will help. A bad situation is just going to stay bad forever.
It deeply annoys me sometimes, how long it took me to overcome the panic, fear, and helplessness from my childhood, to say nothing of all the secondary traumas when I got out for university, and was both looked down upon for it, routinely told that I must think I was better than everyone else when I really wasn’t smart at all (vicious things meant to hurt: my family did not “fight” fair), and simultaneously lived with tremendous, suicidal-level guilt that I had left my siblings behind. One sibling, who had seen me more like a mother for years, hated me for abandoning him, and when he went radical angry-young-white-man, getting big into guns while spouting anti-immigrant and anti-feminist rhetoric and threatening that if I came near the family home again I’d be responsible for anything he did to other women… you can imagine the added helplessness, the deep and complicated feelings of guilt and complicity that occupied most of my twenties. I truly expected for a time that the next mass murder in Toronto would involve a child I had named, whose existence had been revealed to me as part of my birthday gift, whose birth had been the happiest day of my life.
Hurt people hurt people, in other words.
Most of my family is healing now, I should add. I don’t relate ugly details from my personal life without an awareness that the people involved are still alive, and know how to read a website. I don’t share them to be vindictive, either; I actually hate the classic writerly expression, “If they wanted to be written about better, they should have acted better.”
However, it’s difficult to juggle living with full integrity and openness myself, when I can’t talk about the damage I’ve worked — and am continuing to work — to overcome. Shame is debilitating, and it teaches you to keep doing things in shadow, hurting in shadow, for fear of “losing face.” Not surprisingly, some of my family considers loss of face worse than most anything else — but although there have been setbacks, these human beings are by and large striving to reckon with their faults, and to improve. What more can I ask of them, as a humanist, given the fleeting nature of our time in the cosmos?
In any case: My own healing took a bloody long time, and that’s the real point here. Every time a difficult situation comes upon me and my first few thoughts are of utter despair, I remember the learned helplessness I’m still overcoming.
And then I remember that secondary situations, like the dire case of my friend and her dying mum, are just fuel for that narcissistic fire: a way of punishing myself for not being able to bear up to so relatively little, when others are taking on so much more.
It’s selfish, and not ideal humanist conduct.
I need to get a lock on my own despair in hard times, so that I don’t use others’ as a crutch.
Naturalizing an Awareness of the World’s Injustice
The other problem with the “shock” of being reminded that many people are worse off is that… it shouldn’t be a shock.
That, too, speaks to some serious slacking in the practice of better humanism.
In my last essay I mentioned the importance of staying informed — but there I spoke about the situation in a more abstracted way, through thought experiments and changing how we approach the news. My slap in the face, this week, came from not being better attuned to communities far closer at hand.
After all, let’s face it: you don’t have to live in Colombia to live in a place where $45USD can make or break someone’s ability to live — or die — with dignity. In Canada, there are very poor people working in the same streets as people who have never known a day of financial discomfort, while in the US… good grief, my dear US readers, what a special kind of injustice to live in a country with such a disconnect between nationalistic pride, and the brutal real-world outcomes for so many local citizens.
The reality is that, wherever we might find ourselves, we’re always living on a specific socioeconomic rung in our local communities. Some of our acquaintances and colleagues are always going to be struggling more than us, and some are always going to be struggling less (or at least differently).
Human competitive drive makes it ever so easy to focus more on those struggling less, and to nurse envy for the relative ease of their lives. Egocentrism also makes it easy for us to distort our own problems’ importance — and worse yet, to see someone else’s articulation of a problem as somehow a direct threat to the legitimacy of our own.
Can we ever overcome our humanity in full? I doubt it. We will always be guilty, to some extent, of overlooking the needs of others while nursing our own wounds and preoccupations. But we can at least seek to reduce the amount that we overlook, by remembering that it costs us ever so little just to check in on one another. To listen. To stay apprised of the shape and extent of disparity in our local communities.
And if you’re afraid that just by listening you’ll be compelled to overextend yourself? Talk that out with yourself first. Walk yourself through scenarios and name your fears and their implications more explicitly. Get to know where you really stand with respect to direct intervention. What are you able to offer if checking in with a friend or coworker yields the realization that they don’t have groceries, or are in the middle of a mental health crisis? Queue up the numbers of services you can redirect them to, if you’re afraid that merely checking in with someone will be “too taxing” for you.
And if you ultimately feel that the toll of checking in on others is “too much” for yourself? Remember that it is a privilege to have the choice not to attend to other people’s needs. Just — remember that, and forgive yourself for leaning on that privilege today.
Then strive to get to a place, some “tomorrow” down the line, where you won’t feel the need to lean on it anymore.
We live in a world where many people’s go-to reassurance, when they or someone else is struggling, is to say things like “Well at least you/I still have…” or “Could be worse! You/I could be living the life that X is living…” But these are dismissive approaches that can prompt a great deal of shame for not bearing up as well as others; and reinforce the idea that suffering is a competitive sport; and turn other people’s suffering into mere self-serving anecdote.
Instead, let’s get to the heart of what has us “using” other examples of suffering in this way. From what personal issues are we deflecting? What’s awry in our default crisis-management routines, that has us leaning on the reality of people worse-off to prompt a change in attitude? And what do these moments of “shock” suggest about how we interact with the world when we are not ourselves in crisis? What routines of community care are we overlooking right until moments of personal distress?
I share personal stories not to indict fellow human beings for being human, but to illustrate that the practice of humanism is ongoing, and requires ongoing improvement — from all of us. This week I didn’t fully fall into the trap of using my friend’s circumstances to “feel better” about my own… but I came close.
Now the trick is to make sure that I don’t come quite so close again.
Warmth to you and yours in this interminable pandemic, with all the complex ways it’s prompted hardship for us all.