It’s easy to say that people are selfish when they don’t support efforts to help poor people.
You can just scroll through your Facebook feed and read people on conservative and liberal sides of the spectrum making these accusations about each other.
“Those conservatives don’t care about anybody!” The poor, the homeless, the immigrant–people in our culture find ways to turn a cold shoulder and even mock them. Conservatives say the same about liberals on issues like abortion.
My uncle once said that the entire approach and philosophy of radio host Rush Limbaugh was basically “an attempt to justify selfishness.” I think he’s onto something.
Rush is a vocal example of a larger movement that is trying to say something like:
I have what I have, and I don’t have to help you. I don’t even have to care about you, because you have the power to improve your life. In fact, it would be bad if I did help you, because I would be depriving you of the opportunity to work hard, pull yourselves up and gain the self-confidence and spiritual growth that comes by triumphing over adversity.
That’s a fine hypothesis, but does it match reality? Sure, a few people can develop an unhealthy dependence, but it is fair to assume that is true for all who are poor?
Perhaps my favorite quote of all time is the one that leads this post:
“If wealth were the inevitable result of hard word and enterprise,
every woman in African would be a millionaire.”
— George Monibot, The Self-Attribution Fallacy.
There have been countries where people have been desperately poor for century after century, and no amount of hard work or free enterprise was able to pull themselves up. The societal structure worked against their efforts–political structure, business climate, wars, famine, you name it.
If time travel were possible, I would dare you to visit any of my relatives from East Europe and tell them that their poverty was a result of not working hard or smart enough. They would put a pitchfork right through your face. I don’t know if anyone else has worked harder than these people or were more enterprising, yet they barely managed to survive from one season to the next.
It’s common sense that there’s far more than just personal motivation responsible for poverty, yet the myth persists rather strongly. It’s easy to write off people for simply being selfish and cold to the suffering of others.
But I think something deeper is going on.
For instance, why is there so much rage toward people on food stamps (SNAP)? It’s one thing to disagree with the policy of food stamps, but the level of rage seems to indicate something else.
The entire food stamps program is folded into the Farm Bill, and the entire Farm Bill is less than 1% of the annual Federal budget. The rage is out of proportion to the situation. We pay many times more for much less useful programs.
A significant number of people are helped by this program. Studies will show that these are hard working people who hold jobs. Their jobs don’t pay enough and better jobs are unavailable, so they have no choice but to use food stamps as a supplement. But the myth of the “lazy food stamps recipient” persists.
Why? I’ll tell you, and you’ll be shocked:
The reason we hate the poor is because we love the poor.
What?? How can this be?
We know, deep down in our being, that we are all connected. We have this fundamental knowledge. It’s instinctive. It’s just something that is just known in the universe.
We know all humans are brothers and sisters. It follows that we have a responsibility to each other that stems from that relationship.
When we see someone suffering, we instinctively feel it, too. We know they are a part of us. We feel their pain, too. Their pain is our pain. Despite the unjust world we see before us, with its patterns of death, decay and misery, in ways we are at a total loss to explain, despite all evidence to the contrary, we know deep in our bones that nobody wins unless everybody wins, and that this is a fundamental law written into the very fabric of the universe.
But we turn away. It’s too hard to go there.
It’s hard, because we are attached in this world to our baser instincts. It takes a lot of spiritual growth to move beyond that. We’re attached to our money. We’re attached to our comfort and security. We are attached to our fear. So we hoard our money, we just want to live our lives and not deal with anyone. We don’t want to engage with their pain and trauma.
Why jump into someone else’s life struggles? I’ve got my own.
We are afraid of the poor–they threaten us by their very presence! It makes no logical sense, but they threaten to open us up to our true nature. They remind us of what we all mean to each other. That’s why we are so enraged by the homeless person who comes up to us asking for money. He’s not likely to hurt us in a physical sense, but he threatens to expose our lifestyle for the lie it is. The way we are living is not true to our nature. The poor remind us of that, but it drives us into a rage. We wish they would just go away.
We find ways to hate them and blame them so we don’t have to love them, because deep down, if we could only get past our fear, loving them is all we really want to do.
The reason we hate the poor is because we love the poor, but we refuse to enter into that love.
We all have a deep empathy. Some of the people who hate the poor the most have the biggest hearts. But they can’t admit that. They can’t open themselves up to the possibilities that may come if they dare open themselves.
Once you open the floodgates of empathy and compassion, we are afraid there would be no stopping it. God only knows what would happen–literally! Heck, we might give away all our possessions, we might live close to the poor, we might have to stick our necks out advocating for causes important to them–in other words, we might get in the middle of their pain and suffering and incur some pain and suffering of our own, even to the point of our own death. We’re so afraid we’re going to lose everything.
Jesus reminds us that we’re only going to gain by doing this. The things we are holding onto are not real. That’s the paradox–in this life, the things that seem “real” are what we can taste, touch, hear, see and hold, like money and possessions. Spirituality seems to promise imaginary things. But the truth is that what’s spiritual is eternal and what we see in this world–however tangible it may seem–is imaginary.
It’s easy to say that Republicans hate the poor and liberals hate the unborn. That’s not true at all. We love them all, but we are afraid of entering into that love and going where that love may take us. We are afraid of losing control.
Time and time again, people who have committed themselves to the cause of love have said they wouldn’t trade it for the world. Yet, we’re so afraid, we’re holding on. We’re huddled up in our fortress, trying to keep everyone else out, when Jesus, and all the spiritual masters from around the world, have told us to let go. Jesus tell us: You are going to find yourself by giving yourself away, not by hoarding your time, hoarding your love or hoarding your possessions.
Admittedly, it’s easy to see why people hoard and close themselves off. There are safety concerns. You want to raise your children in health. You want to protect your loved ones. These are noble pursuits. There’s a scarcity mindset where people think if they give away what they have there won’t be enough to go around. There is a time to be discerning and not just haphazardly jumping into a risky situation unprepared.
We worry that we might give away all that we have, deplete ourselves in the process and still be unsure whether all that sacrifice would even accomplish anything at all. It’s easy to wonder if Jesus had similar thoughts while hanging on the cross.
But again, Scripture tells us over and over again–the lives of the saints tell us over and over again–it’s a good life to give yourself in service to others. You find your true self that way, because you get the false self out of the way. Our true nature is one of unbelievable oneness–perfect unity in perfect diversity–but our false self pretends there are divisions. We mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain what we are and what we have is to keep our distance from others.
So the reason we hate the poor is because we love the poor. We know deep down we’re all connected. It tugs on us. It tugs on our conscience. It can tug on us in an unhealthy way through guilt and shame. But a small amount of guilt can open the door to your conscience. The five dollars I spend on dessert today is not a big deal to me, but that $5 could mean the difference between life and death to a family faced with impending starvation. It’s hard to justify my $5 dessert when there are people out there who need it more. It’s too bad we approach this out of guilt, because it’s just a matter of simple economics. But we have to understand our true nature before we can see it that way.
So that’s what the phenomenon of hating and blaming the poor is all about. It’s a way to try to manage the guilt that comes with privilege. The guilt pops up like the groundhogs in the Whac-A-Mole game, and you keep hammering them down, but they keep popping up over and over–until maybe, you give in and go where it takes you.
It’s a nice partnership with corporate America. Corporations want to make money and citizens want to assuage their guilt. You see this unholy marriage in our modern political parties. The “Rush Limbaugh ideology” is one example this–make money and don’t worry about anyone else.
It’s too bad. I would like to think this post can help break the stalemate in America–between rich and poor, between conservative and liberal. Maybe we aren’t so different after all, we are just choosing to cope with our lives differently. We’re all just afraid of how deeply we are all connected and how rich that love is and how meaningless our separation from each other is.
Visit Frank’s website: The Traveling Ecumenist