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When I See Suffering, it Makes me Angry

Image by Aamir Mohd Khan from Pixabay

We all live in a selfish world, in selfish times. Returning to the United States after almost two years away, seeing how things have changed is saddening. There are shuttered windows on once-prosperous businesses. There are more homeless now, even in the suburbs, walking by with all their belongings in shopping carts, stopping in the parking lots of empty buildings instead of finding some semblance of shelter or normalcy.

Barely hanging on myself at the bottom of the food chain, I am often in spaces where I see the people who are struggling worse than I am, suffering more than I am. It hurts. Every time I see someone acquiescing to their suffering, walking quietly away without tears, it breaks something inside of me. I think, it shouldn't be this hard just to survive.

So many people these days are living in survival mode. They don't know where their next meal will come from, or if it will come at all. They don't have somewhere safe and warm to go at night. They have been lost and forgotten by people who are struggling just a little bit less.

But then, there are those at the top who have billions in their bank accounts. The stark contrast between the very rich and the very poor is a divide that is widening every day. It's as though the 'haves' don't even see that the 'have nots' exist.

The desire to compete

From childhood, the desire to compete and be the best is instilled in all of us. We are taught to be successful at all costs, to climb the corporate ladder towards wealth and fame. We are taught to measure our success in dollar signs, instead of in acts of kindness towards our fellow man. We are taught to step on people to get ahead.

Through sports, academic achievement and other extra-curriculars, we are taught that the world is divided into winners and losers, and we all know which ones we are expected to be.

We are taught a fierce individualism, a desire to get ahead of anyone and everyone else. We are taught to be conquerors.

Just look at Melania Trump and her "Be Best" program. When the campaign came out, the New Yorker had this to say:

“Be best” at what? The First Lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, casts the blurriness of the Be Best campaign as a strength, “something unique.” “She has not narrowed her platform down to just one topic, as has been done in the past,” Grisham said, on CNN. “Mrs. Trump wishes to help the next generation by creating change through awareness on a variety of issues.” Be best: Is it a competitive challenge to kids? (Yikes!) A benediction? A Yoda-esque mantra? It has a Trumpian tinge, a view of life as a competition divided into winners and losers. But the grammar crumbles around itself; here is a motto for careerist doges. Its vacuity accords with the Trump Administration’s general nihilism: the President fixates on rankings because he can grasp little else.

Just the idea that you have to be the best, imposed upon impressionable little children, creates an ideology that is laced with fear and competition from the youngest ages. We teach our children that they have to struggle to get ahead, that they need to compete for rankings to succeed, and that if you aren't the best then you need to try harder.

Of course, not everyone can be the best, and therein lies the problem. For one person to be able to be the best, that means, someone else has to be the worst. When you are, in fact, the worst at something it is a massive hit to your self esteem and sense of self worth.

Competition from childhood creates an us vs. them mentality that persists into adulthood. Everyone is striving to be in the ingroup and blaming the outgroup for their ineptness. Competition divides people. When you want to be better than other people, you are by definition, wishing that someone else would be worse. This creates all sorts of social problems that we see today.

We don't look at people and SEE them

In one suburb I was living in, people got upset about the homeless sleeping in the local park. City workers were pressured to get the homeless to move somewhere else (where, I don't know) so they would be out of sight. Not only did the residents not want to help the homeless, they didn't even want to see them. This is just a symptom of a huge, systemic issue that forces people into homelessness in the first place.

In 2018, the "Right to Rest" bill was introduced here in Colorado:

The bill creates the 'Colorado Right to Rest Act', which establishes basic rights for persons experiencing homelessness, including, but not limited to, the right to use and move freely in public spaces, to rest in public spaces, to eat or accept food in any public space where food is not prohibited, to occupy a legally parked vehicle, and to have a reasonable expectation of privacy of one's property. The bill does not create an obligation for a provider of services for persons experiencing homelessness to provide shelter or services when none are available.

The bill lost.

Lately, I have been in the process of applying for public assistance programs. This means, I am in spaces where people are going out of desperation and fear, waiting for hours to speak to someone and beg for help. I have seen the people in my area who are struggling the most.

Here in Denver, there is a tent city for the homeless. So many images are running through my head this morning, it reminds me of the song "The Boxer" from Simon and Garfunkel:

When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Runnin' scared, laying low
Seeking out the poorer quarters, where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know

Seeing all the "ragged people" up close and personal, talking to them, breaks my heart. It makes me angry that anyone is allowed to live this way. In the richest country in the world, people shouldn't be going homeless and hungry. In a country where there are 756 Billionaires, there shouldn't be 653,100 homeless people.

What happened to human decency and kindness? Why aren't we reaching out a hand in hope to the people who are going without?

We blame them instead for their plight. We say to ourselves that they should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and try a little harder. We blame the poor and those who go without by telling ourselves that in this "land of opportunity" everyone has the chance to succeed. It's their own fault if they don't.

But, what the actual fuck?

Our society creates winners and losers. It contrives to make us uncaring for the ones who don't win. Divisiveness absolves us of responsibility.

In a world where there are enough resources for everyone to survive if we divided them more equally, we simply don't. We don't require the rich to help the poor, because we all hope that someday we will be one of the rich too, and we don't want to share what we worked so hard for with people that we feel like aren't 'deserving' of our help.

We make social programs with hoops to jump through. You have to work a certain amount of hours to receive benefits, or prove that you are too disabled to work. But to receive assistance for disability, there is a minimum a 6-month wait. What are people to do in the meantime?

According to The New Republic,

As Ronald Reagan and other politicians ginned up anti-government and anti-poor resentment in the 1970s and ’80s, the welfare queen stood in for the idea that black people were too lazy to work, instead relying on public benefits to get by, paid for by the rest of us upstanding citizens. She was promiscuous, having as many children as possible in order to beef up her benefit take. It was always a myth—white people have always made up the majority of those receiving government checks, and if anything, benefits are too miserly, not too lavish. But it was a potent stereotype, which helped fuel a crackdown on the poor and a huge reduction in their benefits, and it remains powerful today.

Toxic stereotypes of welfare queens getting rich off of the taxpayer dime have led to a social safety net in the US that is shaky at best, especially compared to other industrialized nations. These myths from the 70's and 80's that are still pervasive today entrench hatred for the poor, and institutionalized racism that hampers minorities from bettering their situation in a generation.

We see things the way that is easiest to see them. We take on a reductionist view that blames the poor for being poor. So much easier to blame than to help.

Things need to change

First, we need to change our own racist, classist viewpoints. We need to eliminate the idea that resources are scarce (they aren't) and the idea that we need to constantly struggle and step over others to get ahead, succeed, and be the best.

In order for the world's population to survive, we need to create a society that values everyone. A society where wealth doesn't equate to worth. Where everyone is valued, seen, heard and provided for.

Look into your heart and find the attitudes that are forcing you to compete, and work on rethinking them. Change your heart. Change your mind. Find compassion inside yourself for your fellow man. Look at the people who are suffering and see in them reflections of yourself. Stop seeing people as 'other' and start seeing the commonalities that are within us all.

Once we change our own attitudes, then we need to change our own actions.

We need to provide a stronger social safety net. We need to make it easier for people to access social programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps and TANF. We also need to make systemic changes to the way that we work. Provide access to better wages for everyone by raising the minimum wage to meet inflation. Provide affordable housing. Provide Universal Basic Income so that if someone loses a job they aren't going to be thrown out onto the street to die.

There are solutions out there to most, if not all, of the world's problems. You can find information about many of them that have been proposed through the United Nations. The problem is, the United Nations can't force individuals or countries to abide by their plans for sustainability worldwide.

Countries have the right to 'opt out' and go their own way. Corporations, cartels, lobbyists and oligarchs put their own short-term gains ahead of worldwide survival for everyone. Rich people want their private jets today, not caring that they are subsequently destroying tomorrow.

We could end poverty and hunger.

We could end climate change.

We could create a sustainable future.

The thing is, though, everyone has to want to. Then, everyone has to take action.

All the time, proponents of capitalism bash socialism and point out examples of how communism failed. But the thing is, communism failed because of selfishness. The same reason that capitalism is failing now, too. We have to end this epidemic of selfishness that lives in the hearts of millions so that we can form a NEW system that will work. To do that, we have to value everyone's life equally. Not just the people alive now either, but the lives of our children's children who will inherit whatever kind of world we create for them.

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