“Think of the starving children in Africa”
“Finish your food. Think of the starving children in Africa.”
Did your parents ever say something like this to you when you were a kid?
I’m guessing the answer is “yes.”
Not only did you have enough food to eat when you were growing up, you probably still have enough food to eat now.
And the fact that you’re reading this means you have internet access, which also means you’re in the lucky 1/3 of the world’s population that does.
The point of this post, however, isn’t to list all of the things you have to be thankful for. Instead, it’s to make you aware that being thankful for the wrong reasons can cause you to be a worse person.
Privileged = superior?
Allow me to explain.
Seth Godin recently wrote a post about the privilege of doing important work. He ended by saying:
For every person reading this there are a thousand people (literally a thousand) in underprivileged nations and situations that would love to have your slot. Don’t waste it.
I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin, but his concluding remarks made me feel queasy.
Don’t waste your privilege—that’s a message we’ve heard countless times. Maybe you’ve heard it in the form of the saying, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
I don’t disagree with this message, but I do question its underlying assumptions concerning privilege.
So you have internet access. And a cell phone. And food. And clean water to drink. And the ability to read and write.
Does that make you superior to people who don’t?
“Of course not,” you might answer. But is that how you really feel, deep down? It’s a question I struggle with.
This isn’t just about how you view people who live in abject poverty. It’s about how you view people in general.
No, you can’t help
People who are materially poor… they seem more “broken,” more in need of solutions. They appear to require “fixing” and “helping.”
They’re the “have-not’s” who need assistance from the “have’s”—that’s you and me, right?
I’m no expert on poverty alleviation, but I did do a two-month community service project in a Native American reservation (called the Navajo Nation) that radically changed the way I think about poverty.
Before arriving in the Navajo Nation, we asked local community leaders what we could do for them. Could we tutor their high school students? Could we build houses? Could we run a program for their elementary school kids?
Their surprising reply: Please don’t do anything for us. Just come here and learn about our culture. Learn about our history. Learn about who we are as people.
That’s when I realized that we, as human beings, want to be understood before we want to be helped. We want to be seen as people, not as a problem or a project.
But problems and projects are what we often reduce people to, not only in the arena of poverty alleviation, but even in the corporate world.
Is your boss just another problem you have to deal with? Are your customers just another annoying project you need to work on?
What does it mean to be poor?
In surveys where people living in developed countries are asked what poverty means to them, here are the common responses:
- Poor sanitation
- No running water
- Lack of medical facilities
- No proper housing
It’s not unexpected that all of these are tangible, material things.
Interestingly, when people living in abject poverty are asked what poverty means to them, their responses are completely different:
The vastly different answers indicate that material poverty isn’t actually about material poverty. It’s about emotional poverty, emotional brokenness.
I’m not okay, you’re not okay
People who are materially poor are broken, but so are we as developed world inhabitants.
They don’t have clean water to drink. We have high rates of depression and suicide.
They don’t have adequate medical facilities. We struggle with a wide variety of addictions.
They have low literacy rates. We have families and marriages that are falling apart.
Until we come to a realization and acceptance of the fact that we’re all broken, just in different ways, we’ll never be able to help people without simultaneously hurting them.
We’ll never be able to serve people who are different from us without simultaneously dehumanizing them.
We’ll never be able to genuinely care for people without simultaneously patronizing them.
I’m not okay and you’re not okay, but we’re all bound together by our humanity—no matter what your social status is or how much wealth you have. We’re all on a journey of growth and discovery, in spite of our brokenness.
The right kind of thankfulness
Coming back to Seth Godin’s post, choosing to do important work is a good thing, but not if you’re making that choice because you think of yourself as superior to people who don’t enjoy the same privileges as you.
So be thankful that you have internet access; don’t be thankful that 2/3 of the world doesn’t, but you do.
It’s a subtle distinction that makes a world of difference.
Do important work. Be generous. Be kind. Pursue excellence.
But don’t do it because you’re more privileged than most other people in the world.
Do it just because it’s the right thing to do.