No pain is foreign to me
Not long ago I heard an interview to Ana Belen and Victor Manuel, famous Spanish singers, in a radio show. They were talking about several matters, especially related to their musical careers, when the host of the program asked if they had a responsibility with their environment, with the society. Ana Belen immediately responded that they certainly did and then she said a phrase that resonated deeply in me: “No pain is foreign to me.” Since I started this journey reflecting on inequality and social justice, I progressively have been more aware of the suffering caused to people by unjust social structures and I want to be sensitive to them and try to make a difference with my life.
Poverty is one of the pains of the world and today it has many faces, hunger, epidemics, refugees, migrants, senseless death. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (2008) declared a raise in the number of undernourished people to 923,000,000[i] of human beings. This increase was caused by the food crisis which escalated in just one year 75,000,000 million of people who don’t receive at least the minimum amount of food to live with dignity. This famine is not only consequence of poverty; it is also cause as part of a vicious cycle in which not being able to get enough nutrients puts the human body in a deeper vulnerability, weakening its natural defense mechanisms increasing the possibility to be affected by illness; also limiting its intellectual resources, which at the same time prevents the access to education, better professional training, and of course access to employment which would result in a better income. This vicious cycle everyday is more serious.
However, it is amazing how society has created a series of excuses or “explanations” to avoid this problem. As Donna Langston (2007) comments in her excellent article “Tired of playing Monopoly?” our societies are reluctant to recognize this gap between rich and poor people. In this denial I am including the privileged and powerful of Mexican society as well, because in that sense we have learned very well the model. It is amazing that in a country with 44,000,000 of people living under the line of poverty, we have the third richest man in the world, as I mentioned before in other paper, which means that almost half of Mexico’s population are not able to afford adequate health care, child care, food, housing, transportation and other basic expenses. In my courses it is frequent to find that my students, most of them in a privileged position, mention the explanations considered by Langston, that poor people are poor due to “something they did or didn’t do; they were lazy, unlucky, didn’t try hard enough, etc.” These ideas are supported by the myth of the classless society, which in my country is perfectly well portrayed in the popular soap operas, in which the leading character, often a poor person, thanks to his work, goodness, luck, hidden talents, and so on, finds the way to climb up in the social ladder. However, this only creates a false hope that helps to perpetuate the system because they have “examples” of people having success, so the system works and they should keep trying because someday they could be there. In the other side of the story, middle class and upper class use their dominant position and enjoy their privileges, which in most of the cases are transparent for them, considering poverty as something that is “regrettable but acceptable, just the outcome of a fair game: <
always been poor people, and there always will be>> ” (Langston, 2007).
I am sincerely questioning me if I can really feel that pain as not foreign to me, if I can really be emphatic with those who everyday goes to bed hungry or sick or away from those who loves them and to whom they resigned in trying to give them a better life; without knowing if the next day things would be better, if they will have something to eat, if they will recover their health someday, if they will see their loved ones again. I don’t know if I can share with them the awareness of a life that every instant is abandoning them, of a hope and strength that everyday seems to be less. Probably it is a pain so big that it is better not to see it, not to hear it, not even feel it because how can I live in a world when even sleeping or even eating is a privilege and not a basic need for each human being?
The paradox is that there are pains to which we know how to react. In facing the financial crisis, just one week is needed for the USA government to decide the implementation of a rescue plan that will cost around $700,000,000,000 dollars. In 2005, as a result of the global demonstrations in a movement to eradicate poverty, promoted by several organizations including an amazing concert called Live 8, it was achieved that the G8 countries duplicated the aid to poor countries, which represented $50,000,000,000 dollars each year. I understand that without the rescue plan, poor people were the most likely to suffer the most severe consequences of the economic crisis. However, I cannot stop questioning why to rescue banks, financial groups and corporations, governments can spend that amount of money without much hesitation, when in 2002 the FAO in its summit calculated that $24,000,000 dollars each year would eradicate famine in the world, and nobody took our their checkbooks. What is worst, that year the military budget in USA was $380,000,000,000 dollars plus $31,500,000,000 dollars for an anti-terror secretary. I think it is not hard to visualize bankers having dinner without any worry while almost one sixth of the human kind is going to bed not only hungry of food but also of hope.
For me one of the important questions is what we can do to ease that pain, how we can make the dream of making poverty history a reality. There is not easy answer but I think any action should start with waking up and being aware of the problem. This would entail stop our denial from both sides, recognizing our privilege or our oppression, and also to stop paying with cheap coins such as guilt or anger, which make us feel bad and think that with our feelings we have already paid our debt, leading us to passivity which is also another of the risks. (Langston, 2007) After that it is necessary to understand the mechanisms that are generating and perpetuating this inequality, criticizing social and economic systems that are permeated in almost all societies but have not produced the desired just results. In this learning process it is essential to acknowledge the struggles, skills and strengths of poor or excluded people. Also it is important to demand free trade and fairer rules to commerce, and also a real social responsibility in the corporations that produce what we consume. It is also important to be active denouncing injustice and participating in collective actions that promote better health, education, and live conditions for those who are more vulnerable or excluded from the system.
My dream is that my children could really live in a world where poverty is only part of a museum exhibit because it doesn’t exist anymore. However, to achieve that it is important that really no pain is foreign to us. What does that mean? What does that imply? I believe it implies something that humanity has been proclaiming since French Revolution but hasn’t been able to really practice: recognizing ourselves as brothers and sisters, making fraternity not only a political statement but a principle of relationship among human beings. Mayan culture summarized this in a beautiful phrase: “In Lakesh”, which means “I am you” or “I am other you”. So, if for us we wouldn’t tolerate a situation of misery, of a poverty that kills, we should not tolerate that for anyone. We are not asked in exclusive to transform the world. However, no one is exempt to do at least what is in his/her hands to make our world a more just and human place.
Langston, D. (2007). White Tired of Playing Monopoly? In M.L. Anderson & P.H. Collins (Eds.), Race, Class and Gender: An anthology (pp. 118-127). Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth.
Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la alimentación. (2008). El hambre aumenta. Retrieved March 28th, 2009, from FAO Sala de Prensa: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/es/news/2008/1000923/index.html
Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la alimentación. (2002). Se estancan los avances en la reducción del hambre. Retrieved March 28th, 2009, from FAO Sala de Prensa: http://www.fao.org/spanish/newsroom/news/2002/9620-es.html
Villamil, J. (2002). Los números del terror. Retrieved March 28th, 2009, from La Jornada: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2002/12/29/005n2pol.php?origen=index.html
[i] I am intentionally writing the numbers this way because I think it helps to visualize them better.
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