It’s Blog Action Day today, a call for bloggers all over the world to discuss one topic which, this year, is Inequality.
I’ve lived in many countries, both developed and developing. I’ve seen with my own eyes the effects of economic inequality on individuals, families and communities. I’ve seen that it has the same effects on the poor whether these be in London, Chile or China (we’re all human after all). Economic inequality diminishes opportunities, leads people to believe they’re less because they can’t aspire to more because of their lack of economic resources.
I’ve seen this with my own eyes and I thought I understood this, but I didn’t. Not at all. I didn’t begin to comprehend what this actually means in practical terms until I found myself in dire economic circumstances following a set of personal problems that led to us, as a family (myself and my two small children), having no direct, active, source of income for over a year.
Only when I was forced to tears, to despair, because I didn’t know how I was going to buy food, only when I was unable to go to the Drs when I was ill (because I had no funds to do so), only when I was unable to buy medicine for myself (because it was too expensive), only when I’ve had to plead with the gas company not to cut my gas off, only when I’ve had to live for a weekend with no water or electricity, because they were cut off, did I even come close to comprehending what economic inequality means for the poorest of the poor, in all societies across the world.
Economic inequality – which leads to poverty for hundreds of millions of people – means that, even when you have the same feelings as more affluent people, when you want to give your children the best you can, or when, for example, you want to send your children to school, start a small business to liberate yourself from the misery, or need to find money for medical emergencies, you cannot. Because there’s simply no money to do so.
That’s the cruel reality of many people’s lives, of the lives of many families, across millions of communities in the world.
People in the developing world could, literally, with the cost of a slap-up birthday meal out, start a business to sustain their families economically from that point on. A humble, honest, business that would allow them to relax a little, to be able to have a little extra to feed their families a little better. To be able to ‘put some aside’ in case of emergencies or to expand their businesses, to be able to send their children to school or University. A small investment in these countries magnifies itself thousand-fold, its effects being felt across the communities, as sure as eggs are eggs. These people don’t take things for granted, they don’t fizzle away money. They know how precious – how life-giving – it is.
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not done as much as I could have, or can, do, personally. I’ve helped where and when I can but when I look deep inside, I know I can do more. I could offer my time and expertise, for example. I could give more, not only monetarily but, also, of myself.
Then I think about how and why this happens. We all know there are these problems in the world. We all know that people don’t have access to water, or die because they don’t have the medication they need, or die in childbirth or can’t afford to send their children to school. We all know this. But it’s convenient for us to forget this because if we remember, and remember too often, we’d have to think about it, we’d have our lack of real, committed, concern on our consciences and we’d never be able to forgive ourselves for our inhumanity.
So we numb ourselves. We don’t think about it. It’s easier that way. But, you know? When you numb yourself against one type of suffering, you numb yourself against all types of suffering and injustice. You slowly close yourself off and your heart seals up, only letting in those people who are close to you, who you allow in to your circle of concern.
Then what happens? You’ve protected yourself from thinking about the people who live in misery far away from you, yes, but you’ve also blinded yourself to those people in your daily life, in your community, who need to be seen, to have their suffering witnessed and then eased. By turning a blind eye on the suffering that comes from inequality, you’ve turned yourself in to someone who accepts inequality wherever it is. You lose your empathy.
Anyone who’s not in your immediate circle of concern becomes someone who’s not your equal and if they’re not your equal, you don’t need to treat them as such. So, you don’t extend kindnesses to them, you’re not cordial with them, you get annoyed with them when they cut you up in traffic…your behaviour then self-perpetuates, leading you to believe that because these people are ‘un-equals’, you should treat them like this. It’s self-reinforcing behaviour of the cruelest kind because, you know what? It forces you, ultimately, to become de-sensitised to suffering and, through this, become indifferent to others.
You don’t look the check-out lady at the supermarket in the eye, you don’t ask her how her day went? Much easier, also, to justify not spending time thinking about those poor African babies who die of malnutrition or those poor women who’ve lost their husbands to Ebola. They’re all other. They’re not me or my loved ones.
Your life might be much easier, might be smoother for you but, I ask you, would it be so hard, so very hard, to extend kindness to the people in your world, to actively look for people who might need your help and then go and help them. To be kind for no reason other than that you choose to be kind. To smile when you pass someone in the street, to help someone with their bags or to help someone off the bus?
It’s pie in the sky thinking but, really, inequality happens, is allowed, whenever people turn a blind eye to the smallest act of indecency or inhumanity or when they simply fail to do the kind thing. Whenever people take the stance that ‘you aren’t my equal’. Inequality of all kinds perpetuates because people don’t take a stance and say ‘This is wrong’.
Perhaps, when things are so wrong, the only way to correct it is to make a stance. To say, ‘No more’, with a conviction that generates action. But we can’t persuade world leaders to do more. We can’t wave a magic wand and give all the NGOs and development agencies all the funds they need to sweep away the problems.
Perhaps what’s needed is for all of us to take a long, deep, look inside and ask ourselves what changes we can make in ourselves to make the world more equitable. Baby steps are still steps forward, after all. If we were all just a little kinder, a little more compassionate, a little less jaded and cynical, we’d reach out more often, and more deeply, to the people around us, making us that much more likely to reach out to help those further away from us.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, if we reach inside ourselves to become more compassionate, as a society we’d become less accepting of our Government’s failures to help, demanding they spend less on war and more on economic development.
They’re baby steps, very tiny baby steps, and can be argued against in a million ways, but it’s a suggestion for somewhere to start.
Try it. Be kind. Seek out your fellow man who needs help and help. Seek out another and help. Feel yourself open to compassion for, and empathy with, them. See them as humans. Treat them as you would those in your circle of concern.
If we all did this, all showed this compassion and empathy, all opened our circle of concern, slowly but surely – even if it’s at a slow pace – inequalities the world over would become unacceptable because we’d feel the pain of them. We’d understand the pain of injustice because we’d feel it ourselves, as keenly as if it were happening to us.
Try it. As Gandhi so wisely said, “The difference between what we do and what we’re capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”.