How do we deal with poverty in this world? What is the right way to confront the predicament of human financial inequality? I have been thinking about this a lot lately, so I would like to share my thoughts and explore some philosophical ideas that touch on this topic.
In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, many people are living on the streets begging for money, or just waiting in an alley for people to put a bit of money in their cups. I see people, my fellow human beings, struggling to sell all kinds of stuff – often useless knick-knacks – just so they can get some food in their mouths at the end of the day. Those who basically live in the sewers or on the dumping ground in a big city like Jakarta are probably the worst off financially. Their only way of making a living is roaming around trying to sell their unskilled labor, like massaging or helping car drivers making u-turns.
The whole notion that is so prevalent in the West that your unfortunate social-economic situation is completely your fault, and that you can become whatever you want to be as long as you work hard, well, here you’ll find out that this is kind of short-sighted. Many of the extremely poor will never make it and are powerless over their fate. This also aligns with the Stoic view on things we do control and things we don’t. In some cases, we are simply stuck in certain external circumstances that govern the course of our lives.
As a Western European, I feel privileged. Not just because I live in a country that is much wealthier, but also because I’m not directly confronted with this degree of poverty all the time, so my own societal position doesn’t go together with a nagging feeling of guilt. When some people are literally laying on the sidewalk, many of the rich and wealthy spend their time shopping in the many malls. Most tourists and expats aren’t any better honestly; the majority of the time they are as hedonistic, if not even more, as some of the wealthy locals.
Walking around in the city, I often experience great difficulties seeing the extremely poor, especially elderly people, while I’m able to travel, stay in hotels, eat whatever I want and earn money by doing something I love. It’s just so unfair. And the guilt and pity I feel gives me a lump in my throat sometimes.
While some of the rich are passing by the poor with a look of contempt, I do exactly the opposite. I walk around in the poor areas of Jakarta with respect for their inhabitants to put up with their unfortunate position, trying to make something out of it. But when I walk around in one of the big malls I feel contempt and even a bit of rage towards those wealthy folks carrying around four to five shopping bags from some Western brand.
I’m absolutely hypocritical of course. Because the only difference between them and myself is that I live in a country surrounded by the wealthiest part of Europe where degrees of poverty you’ll find in Southeast Asia are non-existent. As a citizen of the world, I’m in the same boat as the richest top percentage of Indonesia. So, who am I to judge?
Now, the next questions I have been asking myself are these. (1) How should I deal with the poverty in the world? And (2) what does poverty say about happiness?
Let’s start with the first one. I understand that many people that are well off like me and care about the sufferings of their fellow human beings, feel called to give money. I have this tendency as well, simply because I want to help these people making the ends meet.
Some people literally depend on what others are willing to give them; especially the elderly that are physically unable to work. But others actually can work, so giving them money would actually obstruct their drive to make a living for themselves. So, what is the correct way? I find some inspiration in a quote from the Tao Te Ching. Here it goes:
The highest good is not to seek to do good, but to allow yourself to become it. The ordinary person seeks to do good things, and finds that they can not do them continually.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 38
Now, what I realize is that forcing goodness isn’t the way to go. From a Taoist point of view, we could say that trying to intervene too much will only dysregulate things; it will do more harm than good. So, in general, I think that giving money to the poor is just a temporary fix. People will grow dependent on their caregivers in the long run, which is catastrophic because they will not develop the tools for survival and will have nothing useful to pass on to the next generation except for the ability to extend one’s hand. Also, it is not sustainable.
Even though I might be able to help some poor people out for a while, my resources are limited as well. On top of that: I work full time so I would grow resentful if other people would structurally live off of me while doing nothing themselves. So, ethically, it would be unsustainable as well. But I don’t want to ignore the poor either: I want to help, especially when they need it. So, again, what is the correct way to approach this problem?
Before I continue, I’d like to share some other observations I have made here in Jakarta. And I’m aware that what I’m going to say includes some generalizations. I have noticed that poor people smile a lot more. They seem to enjoy the little things in life, and I have yet to encounter a poor person that is depressed the way that I have experienced. Sure, they experience the same emotions as I do, but they seem much more vibrant and happy. I’m not talking about the extremely poor, but those that a Westerner like me would consider way below the poverty standard.
Sometimes it feels like they are living in another dimension; that they aren’t burdened by the same worries about the future as I am. I see an old man just sitting on the sidewalk watching the traffic with a huge smile on his face. Also, the younger people seem to experience a certain stillness from time to time. And overall, these people are overjoyed when they have a little chit-chat with a stranger. Most of them greet me with a smile and some want to take a picture with me to post on their Facebook page.
Many of the rich locals that I encounter in the mall don’t look happy at all. As if they have tried to buy themselves happy but failed. They are, so it seems, perpetually searching for something. I suspect that these people are dealing with the same wealth diseases as myself: depression, feelings of emptiness, loneliness. Just to name a few. I see a reflection of myself when I pass them by; I see something in these people that I can relate to terrifyingly well.
I say ‘terrifyingly’ because deep in the back of my mind, I also enjoy my place in the hierarchy. I mean: I’ve got way more possibilities in this world than the poor of Indonesia. And they seem to look up to a Westerner like me, which gives my ego a false sense of superiority. As if I’m more important than them. This is the dark side, I guess, that contrasts my desire for change and actually finds a certain hedonistic joy in my position.
Now, this clinging to one’s social status is also a source of unhappiness. Because there’s always that possibility to lose it because the world is always changing. Also, there is, in one way or another, the constant tendency to keep up with the Joneses. And there’s also this nagging thought that our elevated position doesn’t make us any happier than those “below” us. I mean: why do we need those shopping bags, those vacations, those expensive vehicles if we’re so fortunate already? And if these things are the very reason that we’re so fortunate: why do they never seem to satisfy?
When I see the less fortunate being more joyful and less anxious than myself, I really begin to wonder if they are truly the ones that have drawn the short straw in this world. Then, I think: will money really make them happy? Or will it only encumber them with the same misery that the wealthy of the world seem to carry around?
I remember the old Stoics teach me that external things do not make us happy. And that wealth, something that seems to be a huge factor of discernment for many people, is just a preferred indifferent. It’s nice to have, but it doesn’t really say anything about our happiness. Therefore, many rich people are miserable and many poor people are happy. This doesn’t take away that quite some people are in dire straits and really need our help in order to survive.
So, back to the question. How do we confront the poverty of the world? I’d say, in moderation. Not all people have the ambition to rid the world of poverty. Not everyone can work for a non-profit organization and dedicate their lives to helping the poor. Most of us have jobs and responsibilities and need to work hard to pay the bills and support our loved ones. So, as a regular person, what can you do? Let’s take this quote from Epictetus:
Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you.Epictetus, Enchiridion, 15
In regards to poverty, this means to me that I just do my thing, but when I see a beggar or notice that a person is really struggling, I might give some money and have a conversation to at least acknowledge their humanity. Lots of them are filled with shame because of their position, which only worsens when the world treats them with contempt. Or I help them in more creative ways, like sharing some knowledge that might be useful to them. The same applies to giving to good causes: again, in moderation.
When I’m in a place like Jakarta I don’t indulge in luxury but I’m not sleeping in the sewers either. I just find a nice middle way: minimalistic, plain and with the necessary facilities to work on my purpose. I find this approach sustainable, so it has become part of my life. Without striving, or being overly ambitious, I feel that I help the unfortunate in a nice flow. Being humble and giving, but not overdoing it, prevents me from creating this nice role for myself as a benefactor or a Santa Claus-like figure. By doing this I respect the natural course of the universe and the complexities of societal structures that often don’t need intervention. Because by trying too hard to help people I might actually not help them at all.