Friday, December 6, 2013

Feeling What She Feels

I was crowned yesterday, for the first time.  In my mouth, that is.

It was a big deal for me, considering I've never had braces or even a cavity.  My crown was needed because of a cracked tooth, so I can still say I've never had a cavity.  Thank you, Good Genes.

As I was sitting there miserably in the dentist chair, as a Very Educated Person hacked away inside my mouth, I found myself thankful.  Because ultimately, she was fixing my tooth.

I remember the first time that Esta came to me for money for a toothache.  We paid for her medical expenses, so I was okay with giving her the $10 she asked for to go to the dentist.

I was horrified the next day when she showed me the hole in her mouth.  He had knocked the tooth out!  She wasn't surprised.  Apparently that's what you do in Tanzania when you have a toothache.  I don't know if he used anesthetic; I don't know that word in Swahili.

The following year, she asked me again for $10 for another tooth.  This time, I told her to find out if she could pay more to have it fixed instead of knocked out.  She came back and shook her head.

I felt helpless.  The only dentists I knew who actually fixed teeth charged western prices.  We have insurance for that, but we were Esta's insurance, and we couldn't afford that.  So I gave her the $10 and she came back with one less tooth.  Again.

Recently I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time.  I was profoundly impacted.  One of the major things that stuck out to me was that white people kept assuming that African-American people thought and felt differently than they did.  They justified so much of their horrifying behavior this way.

[Two southern women were discussing the practice of selling off the children of slaves.  One woman asked the other,] "Suppose, ma'am, your two children, there, should be taken from you, and sold?"

"We can't reason from our feelings to those of this class of persons," said the other lady.  

I was struck by the fact that even though I can't imagine ever doing such despicable things, I am guilty of thinking that people who are "of a different class" must somehow think or feel differently than me.

We pride ourselves on not being racially prejudiced.  But are we prejudiced against the poor?

Half the world lives on two dollars a day.  We hear that a lot, don't we?

And we think, how is that possible?  What does that even mean?  We think:
It must be different for them.  The standard of living must be cheaper.  In the pictures, the children always look so happy.  They've learned to be happy with less.  And losing multiple small children to preventable diseases, or living without clean water, or losing all their possessions to a typhoon--well, they are used to a hard life.  And they probably didn't have many possessions to begin with.  It's probably not as hard for them as it would be for me.  
We can't reason from our feelings to those of this class of persons.

So let's consider this.  Here's what I've observed.

Yeah, some things are cheaper.  Sort of.
Housing is cheaper, if you're okay with your whole family living in one room with no plumbing or electricity.
Transportation is cheaper, if you're okay with cramming 20 people in a mini-van.   And waiting an hour for it.

But food?  Food in the third world costs the same as in America.  (On average, with some exceptions.)
Imagine feeding your family, in America, on $100 a month.
Food in the third world costs the same as in America.

Impossible, you say.  We would starve.  After all, even welfare recipients in America get $400 a month in food stamps.

You wouldn't starve on $100 a month, if your grocery list consisted of only:
dried beans
oil (the cheapest kind)
tomato paste
white rice

You would never eat out.  Never have Starbucks.  You would grow your own vegetables, and maybe have a chicken or two running around your yard eating bugs.  If you ever buy meat, it would usually be organ meat such as heart or liver.  Soda would be for special occasions.

That's how they live on two dollars a day.

I'm not about guilt here.  And I'm not about judging.  I spend a lot more than $100 a month on food for my family, and we do eat out sometimes--even in Tanzania.  I'm not about throwing more money at some "good cause" just to assuage our consciences, because as I've written before, often that makes things worse.

I'm about identifying with the very poor.  Trying hard to feel their pain and their fear and their joy.  I know I can't; I know I probably never will--but I want to try.  Because that's the first step to really understanding how to help.  After all, we're talking about half the world's population.  And we are the aristocracy.

Last week I saw a magazine picture of a Filipino woman sitting beside her small, dead son after the typhoon.  He was carefully wrapped in a blanket, and the photographer had captured the look of absolute despair on the mother's face.

I wept.  And I allowed the grief to wash over me.

She is not different.  Her grief is not different.  We can reason from our feelings to those of this class of persons.

Like what it would feel like to have another tooth knocked out every time I had a toothache.

To whom much has been given, much will be required.  

"And they tell us that the Bible is on their side; certainly all the power is.  They are rich, and healthy, and happy; they are members of churches, expecting to go to heaven; and they get along so easy in the world, and have it all their own way; and poor, honest, faithful Christians--Christians as good or better than they--are lying in the very dust under their feet."
Uncle Tom's Cabin

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