This week, I was once again confronted with the fact that I am part of the world’s 1%. I sometimes forget it, but two incidents this week reminded me that I am, indeed, incredibly wealthy by international standards.
1. I’ve had ongoing problems with my Achilles’ tendons for several months, and I decided to visit the physiotherapy department at Bumrungrad Hospital. Bumrungrad is one of the best international hospitals in the world, and people fly in from all over the world for treatment. In spite of this pedigree, their prices are reasonable, at least to someone accustomed to paying Canadian prices for physio. The hospital is located in Bangkok’s core, and I took the BTS (sky train) to get there. As I walked towards the hospital, I noticed quite a few beggars, some who were missing limbs, others who were clutching babies. I was struck by the irony that I was walking to a medical centre that caters to the rich, to receive treatment for a sports injury (something that only impacts my recreational activities), when the people surrounding me could barely afford to eat. It was jarring, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.
2. Several of the teachers at Todd’s school ran an extra-curricular activity for a group of high school students. The students were divided into three groups, and each group was given a different amount of cardboard to build themselves “houses” to sleep in overnight. The largest group was given the smallest number of boxes, the medium group was given a medium number, and the smallest group was given the largest number of boxes. Even though the smallest group had many boxes left over when they finished building their “houses,” they didn’t offer any to the other groups. Instead, they used them to “prettify” their houses, and even threw some in the garbage. I was not present for this activity, but hearing it recounted* hit home.
I worked with Calgary’s homeless population for 7 years, and I’ve lived in cities that are far more impoverished than Bangkok, places such as Kathmandu and Kolkata. I know all the academic answers regarding poverty: “don’t give to beggars, because it only contributes to the problem. Besides, half of them are controlled by “bosses” who take any money that they collect. Give to an organization instead.” There is truth in all of these statements.
However, I don’t think that intellectual answers let me off the hook. The words of Jesus make me think that He wouldn’t be impressed with rationalizations. He didn’t ignore beggars, and He didn’t try to avoid discomfort. I don’t think that this translates into always giving money to beggars – sometimes (perhaps often) there are good reasons not to give money. Sometimes money increases the problems, and sometimes, it gives us an easy out – a way to ease our guilty consciences – without addressing the deeper causes of poverty. I think Jesus’ challenge was not to mindlessly give money, but to truly “see” people, and to show compassion.
Practically, I don’t know how this should impact my life, although I’m trying to learn. I’m starting to suspect, though, that “feeling better” or being more comfortable with poverty should not be my primary goal, or even a goal at all. Poverty should make me uncomfortable. Perhaps discomfort is one of the privileges connected with membership in the 1%.