Monday, May 12, 2008

On Poverty

I'm a selfish son-of-a-bitch.

On Wednesday, I watched the movie, Born into Brothels. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it. For those on Saipan, there is a copy available at the Public Library. A few years ago, it won the Academy Award, and a bunch of other major film festival awards, for best documentary. I usually hate documentaries, and rarely watch them. I can't say I really enjoyed the movie, but it really stayed with me, which is probably more important.

Born into Brothels is the story of the film-maker, who wanted to photograph women's issues in India, and ended up moving into a brothel in Calcutta in order to get to know the women and be trusted by them. In the process, she got to know the children whose mothers populated the red light district of Calcutta, and set out to teach them photography. It's a moving story of the children's experience of creativity, individuality, and for some, freedom from their surroundings and a chance for a better life. Watch the special features, which include the film-maker's visit to the children three years later, and a segment of them watching film and their reactions.

I had tears in my eyes during much of the movie. Man, these are children subjected to such horrible situations, and walking a predetermined path. And here, one woman changes the path for them, shows them that destiny has options.

Lately, I've been thinking about life. Some might characterize it as "mid-life crisis." For me, it's been mid-life evaluation. I've reached the pinnacle of accomplishments in my profession, and though it's satisfying, oddly enough, it's not automatically fulfilling. Sure, it's fulfilling looking back, but that doesn't necessarily carry me forward. There is a nagging feeling that there is more to be done. My friends tell me I'll go insane thinking like this, and that I should relax and just enjoy myself. I should. But movies like this get under my skin, because it's such a self-centered existence to think that once I've got everything I need, the rest is not my concern. We all spend so much of our lives thinking of our narrow self-interests -- our careers, our families, our children, our retirement, and we might even placate our hunger to feel good about our humanitarian souls by contributing to the worthy cause du jour. In the end, it's all pretty hollow.

All of this rumbling around in my head for the past few days has gotten me thinking about poverty, and the misery it brings. But also realizing that poverty doesn't come purely from lack of material goods, but from lack of morality. Aid gets pilfered or misappropriated (fancy words for "stolen") by people who line the trail from donor to recipient. And the aid often subjugates the recipient to a mentality of dependency. Aid is needed, but it has to be linked with education, transformation, a change of mind and heart for all parties. Long-term solutions require systemic changes.

I often think of the tragedy of many of the people who work here on Saipan. Because of the inequality of wealth among nations, our housekeeper left her boys in the Philippines when the children were under four-years old. She came to a place where the wages for a housekeeper were $350 a month, managed to live on this, and send enough home each month to put her boys through college. But she saw them once every five years. A mother removed from her sons, because of that nation's poverty and our wealth.

I'm trying to go beyond these words and figure out how to do something meaningful about all of this. I'm reflecting on something I read a few days ago also, that talks about "right living" and being "undeterred by fear."
We must be like the fountain or spring that is continually emptying itself of all that it has and is continually being refilled from an invisible source. To be continually giving out for the good of our fellows undeterred by the fear of poverty and reliant on the unfailing bounty of the Source of all wealth and all good -- this is the secret of right living.
I also know that without ongoing stimulation, I'll get distracted by the concerns of my own life. It's just so easy, because they are so readily accessible to my brain, like the blood that bathes it. So, I'm trying to give my mind some regular access to great issues, great ideas, just to stay engaged with the needs of my fellow human beings that for some stupid reason didn't have access to the things I did. The problems are big and complex. I don't pretend to have any clue of how to solve any of them, and I doubt I'll figure it out. But it is becoming clearer and more urgent for me to put my energy toward them, rather than toward my own little troubles.

So, the first step? I'm reflecting. I'm going to learn about some of the problems with being a savior. And I'm going to stay inspired -- I ordered the film, Gandhi, from Netflix and it should be here by the weekend. Yeah, it might seem like a pretty lame effort. Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." And although I don't want to be one of those good men doing nothing, I do want to be doing a meaningful something, which requires some thought, understanding and preparation.

It's also going to require me to stop being a selfish son-of-a-bitch, which is probably the biggest global impediment to ending poverty.


Forgotten said...

When I was 13, I befriended a little boy (about 6 years old then) on my island, Lukunor, an outer island of Chuuk. I was about to come to Saipan to go to school as my parents were here, so I asked him if he'd like me to send him anything when I got here. I thought he'd ask for toys or clothes as most young boys are wont to do. Instead he asked for a hammer and a bag of sugar. A hammer to replace the rock he usually used to help his father repair their tin shack, and sugar so that his mother could be proud to offer sweetened rainwater to visitors who came to their house. Children of poverty have a very different view of the world, and, once you have spent time with them, they can change yours too. I am returning home next month for the first time in many years. Maybe this time, I CAN do something. I take comfort in knowing I am not alone in my thoughts.

rlbates said...

Very nice post. I do what I can knowing it will never be enough.

Dragonfly said...

That book you ordered is a fantastic one. Sadly (as you probably see a lot), much foreign aid and development money does not help as much as is hoped.