Being present to poverty

Originally published on The Stanford Social Innovation Review on October 6, 2014.

How eager we are to solve our problems! How insistently we search for an answer, a way out, a remedy! We never consider the problem itself, but with agitation and anxiety grope for an answer [that] is invariably self-projected. Though the problem is self-created, we try to find an answer away from it. To look for an answer is to avoid the problem … The solution is not separate from the problem; the answer is in the problem, not away from it.—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living

We all have an experience of poverty. For some of us it is a recent memory, or even our current state. We may lack a place to live, food to eat, or money to pay for other things we need. We may be dealing with the consequences of having lacked these things earlier in our lives. Or we may be poor only in a relative sense, missing out on resources or opportunities that seem to come easily to others we know. In any case, it is unlikely we would have to reach very far back into our families’ pasts to find forbears whose poverty was absolute and acute.

On a practical level, however, for most of us perhaps the most tangible experience of poverty we have is a face-to-face interaction with someone who is poor. We stop at a traffic light, and a man approaches us carrying a cardboard sign and asking for money. Or as we leave a grocery store, a woman asks us for spare change so that her children can eat.

In such encounters, we can feel as if the full weight of human suffering has been dropped upon us. We are flooded with emotions: anger at the injustice of poverty, pity for the person’s suffering, annoyance at being asked for money, or guilt for not giving more. It is difficult to sit with these emotions for very long.

So we try to make sense of the situation. Maybe the man with the sign is an alcoholic, or mentally ill, or a veteran with post-traumatic stress. Maybe the mother is a widow, or an illegal immigrant, or part of a begging scam. If the results of our sense-making evoke in us a desire to help—that is, if we choose an explanation that casts this person in a favorable light—then we start wondering what we could do to help. Maybe we could give money, contact social services, or reconnect them with family.

But then we wonder what impact our actions would actually have. We ask ourselves, is it worth it? How much difference can we really make? Our assessment of the impact we would have informs the action we ultimately take—whether that is giving money, offering more substantive help, or simply looking away, in which case the assessment of low impact serves to justify our decision.

As a society, this is typically the way we respond to poverty. We identify causes, we propose solutions, and we assess impact. Each of these responses seems completely logical and appropriate, yet each is an addiction that helps us avoid the emotional experience that poverty evokes in us. As a result, we miss out on the learning that could occur if we were fully present to that experience.

Addicted to Causes

As humans, when we encounter anything we do not like, our first response is often to seek a logical explanation. Why is it here? How did this happen? Who did this? Why? In the case of poverty, we want to know its causes. Where does poverty come from?

listofpovertycauseswikipedia

Above is the list of poverty’s causes that appears on Wikipedia. The list is fascinating. It includes war, disease, racism, dictatorships, disasters, overdependence on agriculture, lack of industrialization, domestic abuse, and teen pregnancy. Are these the causes of poverty? Did these things bring poverty into existence?

Of course not. All of those things—poverty included—were present at the dawn of the human era in some form. Poverty is the initial condition of the human species; it requires no cause. The human experience began in poverty and until relatively recent times has been a rather desperate affair. War, disease, racism, and the other so-called causes of poverty listed above are merely other facets of that desperation, which is the ground from which humanity is emerging.

Poverty is not something new that has entered an otherwise blithe human existence for a variety of discernable reasons and needs to be pushed back out. We cannot identify its causes, address them one by one, and watch poverty disappear. We seek the causes only because we crave a logical explanation that will help us keep at bay the emotions that poverty evokes in us. We look for the causes of poverty so that we can make poverty “make sense.” We want to objectify it, to make it part of the system around us rather than a part of ourselves.

Addicted to Solutions

We then derive solutions to poverty and take action to implement those solutions. Thus, we do not need to face our emotional experience of poverty because we are already doing our part to eliminate it. But where do these solutions come from?

In The Nature of Mass Poverty, John Kenneth Galbraith writes that what people identify as the cause of poverty is invariably a lack of whatever it is that they themselves can offer to the poor. We all want to be valuable, so we formulate a worldview in which we are the solution to the problems we observe. Galbraith notes that the first Western models of economic development were designed to provide financial and technical assistance to poor countries, since that is what the West could offer.

Similarly, today’s proposed solutions are ideas, policies, and technologies that are in ascendency in the West. Financial innovation (such as microfinance) has been popular. Social inclusion is popular now that Western countries have legislated against segregation and discrimination. As we protect gay rights in the West, that becomes something that developing countries must need as well. Youth development becomes important as Western countries invest their hopes in their own Millennial generations.

None of these proposed solutions, in itself, is bad. In fact, they may all be facets of a world in which poverty does not exist, just as the so-called causes of poverty are facets of a world in which it does. Some facets of this world without poverty we already have, and thus we propose them as solutions. But there are other facets we do not yet have, and we will find them only if we are willing to pass through the emotional space that poverty creates in us.

Addicted to Impact

Donors’ interest in making a measurable impact has reached a feverish pitch in recent years. This addiction soothes us by solidifying poverty as something “out there” that we “in here” can change, by comforting us with documented successes and by excusing inaction when we assess that our efforts will be of little use.

Why do we feel compelled to make an impact? Poverty is the initial condition of the human species; it has been around as long as we have. I am not discounting the incremental improvements that are available, but given the centrality of poverty to the human story is it at all likely that our most meaningful response to it would be something that would produce a measurable impact over the course of a few years?

I do not think so. Rather, I think we assess our impact primarily to support egoistic claims of competence, to objectify poverty and to assure ourselves that we are making a difference—that our lives have meaning. This sense of meaning relies on the construct of time: We are making tomorrow better than today. But is there a response to poverty available to us that is meaningful, independent of the construct of time?

Being Present to Poverty

In the moment, our lives have meaning when we are fully present to those around us who are suffering. Executive coach Doug Silsbee defines presence as “a state of awareness, in the moment, characterized by the felt experience of timelessness, connectedness, and a larger truth.” Presence allows another person to express and release long-held emotions that may have contributed to the recurring catastrophes of their lives, and to imagine a radically new way of being in the world. Only then can they take full advantage of resources and opportunities that may already exist all around them.

But to be fully present to the poor, we must first be fully present to ourselves and to our own emotions. The Latin root of “emotion” means “to move out from.” It is from within the emotional space that poverty creates in us that we will ultimately find our way out. By contrast, the Latin root of “addiction” means “to deliver up” or “to yield.” We deliver ourselves up to these addictions precisely to avoid being present:

  • Our addiction to causes creates separateness rather than connectedness, making poverty part of the system out there rather than part of us in here.
  • Our addiction to solutions squelches timelessness by placing us mentally in a future that is better than the present.
  • Our addiction to impact ignores a higher truth by celebrating what we alone have achieved.

If we release ourselves from these addictions, we may find the solution to poverty that lies within the problem of poverty. We may find that the problem is, as Krishnamurti proposes, self-created; we may see that the world does not have problems, but that people have problems because they would like the world to be other than as it is. Let us accept that world as it is and have a new conversation about how it feels to live here. And then let’s “move out” from there.