We recoil from poverty in two different ways.
The first way is relatively natural but still unfortunate. If we do not acknowledge it, then it doesn’t exist. It is a selfish need – if it doesn’t exist, then it can’t happen to me.
I think if you work in healthcare, or really any field that deals with people and their journeys, you quickly release that the difference between full health and illness, happiness and despair, fortune and destitution, can be a nanosecond. You realise that life is not fair, that the Fates are fickle things, that life is short and often bittersweet and that, basically, shit happens. For many people there is no gradual descent from wellness and security – there is a thin, jet-black veil that can fall away in heartbeat.
What a terrorising reality that is. What a difficult thing to hold conscious for too long. To do so takes courage and honesty and creates a large degree of anxiety. But it has its own reward – the knowledge of this frailty can give power and richness to life. Indeed, it is in these ‘boundary moments’, those times when our best laid plans are radically altered forever, that a new commitment to life can occur. Some would go so far to say that this hallowed ground, where we face loss and accept impermanence, is the only place where real change happens.
This is why empathy can seem such a rare thing – it requires real courage – and it requires we accept that “there but for the grace of God go I”. It also undermines that great bulwark against anxiety – an obsessive need to control. Because you can’t control all aspects of life, and you certainly can’t control death. Those who try to might find success for some time, and although often productive people, are usually quite insular and detached. They are also quite brittle. It is no surprise that those with the least are often more charitable than those with plenty – they are less afraid, less obsessively controlling, and more empathic as a result.
The second reason we recoil from poverty is much more unnatural and disappointing. We are taught to. This is the ‘War on the Poor’. We are educated, through cultural and media bias, to hate the poor. And because we have a natural aversion anyway, these institutions often have a great deal of success.
A good rule of thumb I once heard is that if you’re criticising people below you on the ladder, you’re probably being manipulated by people above.
This inhumane attack on Metiria isn’t occurring in a vacuum – it is just one more example of this implicit rule, albeit a much more public one. I understand the law is important, I use it every day in my work and have a great respect for what it represents – but the law is there to serve us. If by breaking the law you are correcting an injustice, then personaly I think it might be OK to do so. Often I have to make decisions regarding physical or mental illness that circumvent the autonomy of my patient – this is the “duty of care.” Yes, it’s a legally valid thing to do, but in essence it’s an overriding or interfering with other laws related to personal autonomy. If I ever had to face a legal challenge, the best defense is the fact that, at the time, it was “the right thing to do.” Is Metiria’s dilemna much different?
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever satisfactorily convince someone who is adamant Metiria broke the law by arguing in this way. But that’s because I don’t think the ‘legal’ level is where their outrage lies. What interests me more is that silent command inherent in the way our system is constructed and in the lies we tell ourselves about it. That the poor “deserve their lot”, that success always comes from “hard work” and that if you can bank your wealth in land, or dodge taxes, then you’re just being “smart”.
I remember doing a home visit in Mangere to see a young girl with Cystic Fibrosis. This is an autosomal recessive, rare genetic condition with no known cure. She was living with six others in a three bedroom government house. I can still see her now, pale and thin, hooked up to an apparatus that helped her breathe, lying on a single mattress in that cold, damp room. Every time I hear someone talk about the poor not “trying hard enough”, I think of that girl. Every time that pustule Hosking waxes on about the glories of Capitalism or derides policy aimed at helping the poor as “the politics of envy” I see her face. She did nothing wrong except be born with an illness into an ethnically deprived group, and a socially deprived community. And she will suffer more than she should because poverty in this country does not exist. Even worse, because we have been inculcated to hate her and her plight.
Hating the poor serves an absolutely vital purpose for those who wish to maintain this uncaring status quo – it keeps us divided. Demagoguery is the oldest trick in the book and bars us from creating that grand, universal solidarity that is not only necessary to meet the challenges of the future, but eminently possible. Its a cheap trick that keeps us from directing our ire to where it really belongs – this rapacious system that rewards greed, and the sycophants in the media and politics who get paid handsomely to promote its cultural narrative.
Metiria is only one victim of this relentless onslaught. She’s done us a great service in raising this issue, as she has done consistently throughout her entire career. Let’s not let her brave disclosure go to waste.