What makes you feel fulfilled and satisfied and thankful about what you have? Why...seeing someone who clearly does not have what you have, of course. Remember that old adage about being sad that you have no shoes until you saw someone who had no feet. Bullshit! What the hell is that? There's no empathy or sympathy for someone with no feet....just satisfaction that you have them. Why not run circles around the poor guy, crying Nyah nyah?
Someone else's misery is uplifting because it reminds you of what you have? I remember, the modern day angel and all round smokin' and kickass Ms. Jolie talking about how her travels to the sorriest places on earth made her grateful for what she has. You know what Angie...you visit any normal middle class home--with a mom fighting cellulite and a dad trying to be the best he can, and kids without nannies, barely hanging on to one home-- and you should be grateful for what you have. But visiting war-torn countries and seeing orphaned kids (not even you can adopt all of 'em in your Farrow-like zeal), and witnessing starvation and death shouldn't make you grateful about anything. It should make you pissed off and sad and depressed and homicidal. Not grateful. About anything.
And then I read this article linked on Sujatha's blog and, while it raised many excellent points about a family deciding to return to India after many years in the U.S., it also pissed me off. The author talks about how earlier she would tell her kid about not wasting food because there were starving children somewhere (how does eating when someone is starving help anyway?), but now (lucky her) she can actually show her child the starving children in person. Wow! Glad their starvation's helping her child-rearing skills. She also talks about teaching her child charity by waving back to the 5-year old poor girl at the school bus stop. Well, to be fair, she has taught her child to give old toys and clothes to the girl. What a great way to get rid of excess stuff when there's no Salvation Army to be found. But all she's taught her child is to be glad she is not hanging around a bus stop waving to a privileged girl and her mommy, while she is still too young to fully appreciate her own dead-end life.
Okay, maybe I'm being hard on this woman but I've heard this sentiment a lot and I find it most selfish, self-absorbed, and insensitive. Not all of us actually do something positive and active to help someone else. But please, can we not degrade someone's suffering further by using it to bolster our own self-esteem and by patting ourselves on our own back?
There is no romance in poverty, no satisfaction in suffering. Yes, we've seen poor people (and I'm talking grinding poverty here) smile because they're human and perhaps sometimes they forget the fragility of their existence, and they grab at their momentary joys as and when they can. They don't announce their emotions to the world so we can say inane things like, "the poor may have nothing but they still smile. They are happier than us." Fuck you!
When someone doesn't have enough money to eat properly, or money to tend to a sick child, or their roof leaks, or they have no roof...and there is nothing they can't do about it they are not enjoying their poverty. If they smile or laugh it's more a testament to their strength, their ability to live in the moment perhaps, and to the human hope that keeps us all going. It's not so that you can feel better about yourself.
And when they are mired in their misery, trapped in poverty, unable to break out of it, the last thing they'd want is to have some rich, phoren-returned memsahib (or sahib) use that as a way to teach their brat life lessons or teach them to appreciate what they have.
They're human beings, not teaching aides or life lessons. They're people with hopes and desires even if they are stillborn, and joys even if they come few and far between. Perhaps that's all they have. And you want to even take that away from them?