Poverty

I’ve taken the day off to gather my thoughts and do some writing to figure out where I am now.  This is such a land of contrasts—such wealth and such deficiency.  Such grand majesty and beauty and such dilapidation.   Such poverty of material things, but such richness of spirit.  I was not expecting this.  I don’t know what I really expected, but I was unprepared for the dichotomies and the vast gulf between realities here.

And I think Martin can testify that this is the first place I’ve ever visited where I haven’t said I want to live here.  It’s beautiful—it’s probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been—but South Africa is troubled.  All governments are inefficient in some ways, but South Africa’s government, from what I hear, rises to a whole new level of inefficiency.  I don’t think Americans can quite wrap their heads around just how hard it is to accomplish anything here that needs government approval.  It takes months.  I’ve heard this from several people who are in the throes of the fight with red tape and bureaucracy.

And there are labor strikes in Cape Town right now; there’s been some violence.  I’m not paying a lot of attention to the nuus, as they say here in Africaans (news), but I’ve seen a couple of stories that are worrisome.  I’m sure we’ll be fine, though.  Our angels are always with us.

But most of all, the extreme poverty here makes my heart hurt.  I don’t think I could be here long without hardening my heart to the plight of the many people who don’t have enough shelter, enough food, enough money.  Because there are so many of them who don’t have, as they say here.

It makes me sorrowful.

Re-reading some of the comments remind me of some truths: Mary Ellen posted, “Don’t take it personal.”  Good advice.  It’s one of the Four Agreements; it must be good advice.  But I don’t know exactly how to go about doing that.  I come from an activist background—you see an injustice, something wrong, you act to change it.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin here, and yet something within me screams that something must be done.  I don’t know how to resolve that tension between needing to fix and being unable.  Must I just give up and accept it?  That seems wrong to me, somehow.

And at the same time I have to realize that I am coming only from my particular viewpoint.  I am used to what I am used to.  I see the conditions here and my viewpoint screams, “these people must be miserable!”  Because where I see a tin shack, they see home.  Yes, they may want a nicer home, but they may be much more content than I think they are.

My American, commercialized worldview may be getting in my way here.  People the world over don’t necessarily think the way many Americans do, that having more and more stuff is what happiness is about.   I may deny that is what I think, but my reaction to the poverty would seem to contradict that.  Because I do equate poverty, a lack of stuff, with misery.  So the converse of that is more stuff equals more happiness.  Which is exactly what I decry in the culture of America, or the West, or of capitalism, or wherever you would like to attribute that particular line of thought.

So, I guess I’m a little hypocritical.  Or at least inconsistent.  I can own that.

I need to think about this some more.

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