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My accidental apathy


Homeless person's hand rests in lapI'm ashamed to say that I almost never interact with poor people. I like to think that I care, that I humanise the issue in my mind, that I don't ignore it like so many do. But the truth is I am guilty of not caring — of failing to be touched by the humanity at the heart of the problem.

About a month ago I was invited to attend a screening of a documentary called The Lucky Country. A project of a single mother, the film was about the drastic cuts to the single parent payments made by the Labor Government earlier this year.

With little publicity other than a Facebook event page, it was shown to a group of around 50 people at a small cinema in St Kilda in Melbourne's inner south-east. It was produced with literally no budget, a triumph made possible through favours, hard work and the volunteered time of university film students.

After the screening, as I sat in the audience listening to the stories of those involved in the film's production, I felt immensely humbled. I was struck by how removed I am from this world of people who struggle to pay for things I don't give a second thought to.

A few months prior I'd watched an episode of ABC1's Four Corners called 'On the Brink', about Australians living on the poverty line. I've been unable to forget one scene in particular.

A woman struggling to support herself and her teenage daughter on Newstart payments was given a $60 supermarket gift card during an appointment at The Spiers Centre in WA. So relieved at the thought of being able to afford items like yoghurt and toilet paper, she cried with gratitude. Returning home, she told the reporter:

I got some toiletries for my daughter because normally I wouldn't be able to get it. I shouldn't have got it because that's that little bit of extra that I spend on, which I should maybe have got food. But just simple things like a decent deodorant for her, personal items, and a little treat of a spray for her.

I tried to imagine not being allowed my favourite deodorant — which all my friends had, too — when I was a teenager. It shocked me that this woman felt guilty not for splurging on designer shoes or indulging in a massage, but for spending a few extra dollars on basic toiletries for her daughter.

Despite a level of awareness that there are people in these situations, being exposed to the bare reality deals a cold dose of perspective.

While my middle-class contemporaries like to dub the inconveniences of modern life 'First World Problems', we remain oblivious to the true extent of our privileged position.

As my memories of particular brushes with people living in poverty fade, feelings of empathy begin to lose their potency; a natural attrition when their reality, so distant from my own, is so lost among the 'First World Problems' of my inner city life.

What I am reminded of on a daily basis, however, are the mega-rich and famous. To the extent that those who are worse off remain hidden and separated, the comparatively small group (on a global scale) who are wealthier than myself are unendingly paraded before me in the media, creating an illusion of disadvantage which starves the seeds of empathy for the true 'have-nots'.

Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne wrote in his book The Irresistible Revolution that the real tragedy of poverty is not that his wealthier Christian contemporaries do not care about the poor, but that they do not know the poor. While socially aware Australians, many of them Christians, speak about the issue of economic disparity, all too often it's from a well-meaning but detached position that has limited ability to take effect beyond the confines of intellectual thought.

Forming opinions about compassionate responses, and even reading articles like this one, are unlikely to ever be enough. The issue too easily remains at a safe distance from one's reality. The tears, the blood, the human beings sick from undernourishment or stressed quite literally to death (via substance abuse, domestic violence or even a self-applied noose) all remain safely distant and out of reach of our deepest feelings.

In facing these realities directly, they become real enough to demand our deep care and attention. And only with deep care and attention do we stand a chance of achieving what needs to be achieved to close the gap threatening the spiritual health of us all.

Megan Graham headshotMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer, journalist and occasional blogger. She writes for Crosslight newspaper and Across website in her current role with the Uniting Church. Her work has appeared in Insights magazine and The Transit Lounge. Megan won the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for her essay 'Slow down, you're just in time'.

Homeless hand image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Megan Graham, Margaret Dooley Award, poverty, anti-poverty week



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Existing comments

Thank you Megan for this timely reminder in 'Anti poverty Week'(APW-Oct 13-19th) Earlier this year, despite advice of ACOSS, CSMC, Vinnies and other major social welfare organisations, and despite the advice from the new Parliamentary Joint Committee for Human Rights, our Federal Government drastically reduced payments to single parents and forced thousands onto the dol. In election and leadership battle mode Labor acknowledged “they got this wrong” and committed to reversing it! This ill-thought policy, “ ... slashed up to $110 a week from the incomes of 80,000 single parents and their families. In effect, it pushed them below the poverty line to save the budget $180 million a year.” The decision should be reversed but sadly it is not Coalition policy. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/leadership-rivals-agree-cut-for-single-parents-was-wrong-20130922-2u81m.html#ixzz2hpoBsuLa Our Federal laws are directly contributing to increasing poverty in this and in many other human rights areas-often distant from our minds. On Indigenous poverty- dispossession, loss of control and stripping of human dignity, see www.concernedaustralians.com.au To mark APW the first 3 books are now online. Perhaps readers might also take a few minutes to phone Federal MP s. Request the reversal of their decision that cut payments . Apathy & Discrimination contributes directly to Poverty.

Georgina | 16 October 2013  

You have so aptly described the problem. I work a pantry that provides food for those in need - but only rarely do I see past the person presenting themselves to see the "real person" who is embarrassed because she/he cannot feed her/his family. Thank you.

Kathleen Anderson | 16 October 2013  

Thank you Megan. Your article touched a deep nerve, a pain I had almost forgotten. As a young woman I became the sole parent of six children. From a life of middle class comfort, we were plunged into poverty. You have prompted me to look more closely at my community, and to become more responsive to the promptings of my heart.

Maureen Helen | 16 October 2013  

Just shared this story with my students.... brought about some interesting discussion.... some of which touched on the supprising actions of young people in reaching out to the poor. One male student, aged 14, said he buys a quarter chicken for a homeless man in his suburb.

Val | 16 October 2013  

Very powerful article and extremely challenging. It could really have been written about me. I wonder, Megan, what suggestions you might have to help us step out and actually meet the poor?

robert | 16 October 2013  

I really appreciate the kind words, thank you. I'm glad if it's touched people, it certainly came from quite a personal place. If someone is inspired or prompted to get to know those living in poverty, I'm really happy/humbled to have that effect! Val, the story of your student is really touching. I'd be interested to know more about how that relationship came about. Robert - there's perhaps not an easy answer, but from my experience I would say that decent programs designed for that purpose, or that involve forming relationships with people in poverty, would be a good way to start. I have participated in an Indigenous cultural exchange program run through Uniting Church (which was truly eye-opening) and allowed me to meet a lot of people in Aboriginal communities doing it tough. I've also known of people volunteering with soup vans and the like or mentoring kids in schools in low socio economic areas. There are certainly groups/ programs around - finding one that allows people to build relationships rather than simply deliver a service might be the challenge.

Megan Graham | 17 October 2013  

Megan. Just tell us what you actually did about it personally and it has to be more than writing about it. Unless you can tell us what action you have taken on a personal level it seems that you are one of the very rich and non affected people you write about.

Laurie Sheehan | 17 October 2013  

Laurie, it seems you've missed the point of the article - which was not to point the finger at anyone else but to face, with honesty, the fact that I'm so removed from the reality of those in poverty despite my beliefs on an intellectual level. That is the crux of the article.

Megan Graham | 18 October 2013  

Megan I didn't miss the point of the article. I just think that the only way to move from writing and talking about poverty is to personally and actively engage with the poor through MICAH, SvdP or a similar organisation. Otherwise we remain aloof and non involved and continue to do nothing.

Laurie Sheehan | 20 October 2013  

Megan Perhaps you will find this clip of help. I found it useful to my own thinking. All the best on the search for action and involvement. Laurie http://youtu.be/l6n6xmFX9cE

Laurie Sheehan | 26 October 2013  

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