What is Poverty? Haiti Reminds Us.

Watching or reading the news lately, one cannot avoid images of Haiti’s poverty. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, many in Haiti, even prior to the earthquake, resorted to eating mud because they could not afford rice or other staples.

The reminder of that kind of poverty makes me question how anyone, myself included, can live a life of such relative wealth without guilt. While I am generally opposed to religion, one good thing that comes of certain religious organizations is the idea of charity, giving, tzedakah, etc. Of course one can lead a life without God and be inclined to give time and money to those in need, but it seems that without God reality is tied to science, where the genetic reality is “survival of the fittest” and to care only for ones’ self and offspring.

On NBC, Conan and Leno are fighting it out for a time slot when they can make America laugh. These comedians poke fun at life so we can get by it. Because regardless where you stand on the food chain, life is ultimately scary and meaningless. You can have all the money in the world and even moments of happiness but that means nothing. You can spend your entire life being Mother Theresa 2.0 and give and give, but that also means nothing. You can be in poverty, trapped by economic forces greater than any talent or skill you have, and that ultimately means nothing too.

Yet as I work as a widget in the machine known as capitalism, I have dual, painfully contrasting purposes in my mind, like two opposing notes sung by the shrillest of voices in attempted and failed harmony. One part of my mind wants wealth. Not stuff, per say, but “money” in the bank. Lots of money. To save and to have. Maybe to buy some stuff. This is what America instills in us as values. If we do not make money, if we chose poverty, we are failures. If we work hard (and use birth control and can obtain health insurance) there is “no excuse” to be poor in this country. Not poor like those in Haiti, anyway. No one in America has to eat mud cookies to survive.

The other contrasting note plaguing my ears is that of the desire to help others. To make a difference in the world. But the pain is so great. And the difference one can make is so small. You can feed a child, you can help a family in a third world country eat for a few days, or even a year. But how much can one person help?

Is there even a way for the world — everyone in the world — to live at a level above poverty (the US standard of poverty) if wealth exists? Doesn’t the wealth of one rely on the poverty of another? And we know communism, the ideal of equality, doesn’t work, because humans are genetically greedy.

So what can one person do? A part of me wants to donate all of my savings to Haiti right now. Of course, I won’t. I’ve never donated money before in my life. Which is terrible of me. But I’m afraid to part with money. I’m afraid any difference I could make (with the exception of donating all of my income to charity or spending my life as an atheist missionary) is too small to be a difference at all.

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5 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don't know where you're living that you don't have any poor people. Maybe trying to find help will lead you in a good direction. Pretend you're a single female with a child for starters. Try to find a place to stay for a night, or a week, or longer. Give to the place you find….if there is one. I have been a single mother the majority of my life…living in poverty. Food and clothing isn't the worst problem. It's WHERE DO YOU LIVE?!! Where do you lay your head down at night? There seem to be shelters around that take in single males. But try finding a place for a female or children. Even a single father with a child…where does he go? With housing waiting lists closed during this recession, I see more families without a place to live. There is nothing worse than having children and not knowing if there will be a place to sleep…a SAFE place for your children to sleep. runinbehind2@yahoo.com

  2. Anonymous says:

    I totally understand how you feel when you say you want to help but at the same time you know your contribution would be so small, even if you were to donate all you have. I gave a small amount to a disaster relief fund for Haiti and I have given before when the earthquake in China happened, on the spur of the moment, sort of an emotional gift. I also would like to give more, but it's so overwhelming. Don't listen to the people, like the person above me who judge. I believe that living responsibly and sustainably is also a form of giving although an indirect one. Also, if you are unsure how to contribute financially now, maybe later on, when your savings have multiplied you might get a clearer picture of how to do it and be more certain about it. But I would say, if you have a feeling of guilt, don't let it destroy you like that, but tackle it. What works for me is focusing on 1 or 2 things at a time. for example, i like the idea of giving locally. maybe you can pick a particular region, or overall cause. also some people say the best thing to do is to volunteer in the community. it's supposed to help with feelings of depression and isolation too. bottom line is, don't be hard on yourself, do whatever feels right. it could be 0 dollars, it could be your time, etc. and by the way, i do like the overall spirit of giving in america. i am originally from a formerly communist country where everyone waits for someone else to come and fix the country, whereas here people get organized and do it, so capitalism ain't that bad after all.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I had just recently added your blog to my Front Page. This post has shown me how naive and uncaring you are. You are saying that there is no one in this country that has to resort to eating mud to fill their empty bellies. And then you say that there is no way to give to others unless you go through a church. And then, the most shocking statement you made is that you have NEVER donated to others. Who are you?

  4. eemusings says:

    I feel the same way. I'm struggling to build a career, to start saving, to do all the things I want to do in life. And yet there are so many people suffering who have absolutely nothing and been through things I cannot even imagine (I cried when I read this essay on the women of the Congo yesterday – http://www.tinyurl.com/ctpzmz) and, like you said, I wanted to donate everything I had to them. But doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Hold on to that thought.

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