On September 13th Brooke Farmer posted an essay that hit me in the face. Here it is.
Brooke wrote a commentary about a couple at the bottom on the socio-economic level begging for change. She met them in a parking lot after they had been refused service at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Brooke bought them coffee and sandwiches, and then thought about boycotting the store. I do not know if she did that, but I won’t cast a judgment either way. Did I boycott Verizon when negotiations broke down with their union employees? No. But I THOUGHT ABOUT IT.
Brooke goes on to write:
I can’t help but wonder what…is wrong with us as a society. Why is it that we treat those at the bottom the very worst? Don’t they have it bad enough? Isn’t it enough that they have nowhere to go? Is it really so much to ask that they just be treated as people, that they be allowed to maintain some shred of dignity when attempting to make a purchase?
She was asking ME those questions, for I agree with her. Why haven’t I joined protest groups in my community? Why haven’t I volunteered for phone banks calling people to ask the questions Brooke asked me? Why haven’t I given more money to the causes I support? Why am I passionate about the idea of equality and compassion and generosity but not so motivated as to get my butt on the street holding a sign? Why am I thinking about being an activist but not actively pursuing it?
Okay, I did write the president a letter and actually bought a stamp and mailed it. Here’s one paragraph.
You must explain that propping up those of need is not altruistic. It’s actually about keeping what you have – your wealth, your freedom, your home in a safe and peaceful place to live. All economic sectors must function for that balance to survive. So when you give to the poor, you are giving to yourself. You must pound this in!
This is what I believe but I’m still asking some other guy to do the heavy lifting. What does that say about me? I think what it says, is that I just don’t feel threatened enough to FIGHT for my causes. Yes, I donate to the missions and Save the Children, and the Pasadena Humane Society, and KPPC Public Radio, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a few PAC’s. But is that enough? Or am I no different than most people in this country – concerned about threats but buffered enough to stay at home and watch TV? And if I am, is that a bad thing? Am I “bad?”
So here’s my take on what we’re all about in the USA. I think that most people (and especially businesses) are motivated to take action for two reasons: fear of loss or the benefits of gain. With little to lose or gain, action is usually not required. Ramp those components up to a tipping point and you get some kind of action to achieve perceived protection or rewards.
Now it just so happens that FEAR motivates more aggressively than delayed gratification. Many studies have proven that. (web search “study of risk aversion”) More people would rather avoid loss in the stock market than risk losing their nest egg for a potentially much bigger gain. And now that the economy is skidding and much of the world is buying US Treasury bills yielding record low interest rates, because they’re “safe,” we can pretty much assume that most people are afraid to lose any more of what they have, which precludes giving money to the needy. (This goes for the big banks as well. Unless you’ve got a AAA rating, forget about getting a loan.)
Do you know what I hear all around me? Something like this: “I don’t want my taxes going to some guy who’s too lazy to get a job.” You know what that manager at Brooke’s Coffee Bean probably thought? He figured, “I’m lucky to have the business I have, and I don’t want two losers coming into my store and scaring away good paying customers.”
It’s sad that poverty offended him, or that he felt it might offend others. I’m lucky to get the business that I have as well. But in my case, instead of pushing people away, it means I’m not threatened enough to fly to Wisconsin and protest Governor Scott Walker’s programs that dismantle public sector unions. I guess I just don’t see enough personal gain to warrant such time and money. There are easier ways to find security. Am I selfish? Maybe. Am I apathetic? No. Am I one of those individuals who goes out of his way to help someone in need? Sometimes. But it’s not enough. How does that make me feel? Obviously not bad enough to get on a picket line for my union or cancel my Verizon contract. So how do I feel about not feeling so bad? Bad, but not that bad. And that IS bad.
So I commend Brooke Farmer for publicly calling out The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. And the next time I exit my local Smart & Final and pass one of those volunteers collecting money for abused children or raped women or the homeless, I’ll give another five dollars and admit it’s not enough. But at least I’m not just thinking about it. I’m doing something about it, in my own little way.
(Photos by Joey Lawrence)