Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poverty, religion, and community building

The last article I read on HuffPo was about how atheists should care more about poverty. In my head that lead to this whole leapfrog experience of thoughts about things that have been happening in my life lately. A bunch of things happening off-line mostly to other people. So I can kind of comment in person but writing about other peoples lives is rather rude. See, I do have tact.

Recently I was reminded that one of the big upsides of Catholicism over the Protestant approach is that Catholics believe you are not saved by faith alone--you have to do good works. I feel like telling the Protestants that they don't need to behave like Jesus, just believe in him, was one of those crucial "missing the point" movements in history.

At this stage of my life I am standing very near the cliff of atheism. I think that if someone is as angry at G-d as I am can't really fall off that cliff. It's like having an airplane cable around my waist as I try to jump off the cliff. I won't get far enough and it's going to fucking hurt trying.

And by the way, if you have ever said, "Catholic or Christian" then you can picture me screeching at you with great fervor for at least half an hour about how ignorant and stupid that sounds. Just sayin'. You believe in and follow Christ? Christian. Moving on.

I believe that nothing and no one is going to save me. No one is watching me and giving a shit. If someone had been watching me through my whole life with dispassion I would have a nice big scythe with that persons name on it. My life is, in my opinion, proof that there could not be a compassionate all knowing G-d. It's enough proof for me at least.

That means I am left in this position of not being good for my big invisible sky friend. Why should I be good? Who defines good? Ah... now we get to the crux of the question. Most people live according to moral structures they have never really thought about. What does being good mean anyway?

I will say that I know profoundly ethical sex workers. I believe they are good people providing a service human-kind needs. If it weren't such a needed field it wouldn't have existed for all time. Give me a break.

I know people who are "good" in my estimation who regularly break the law. The law does not define good for me. The law is a codefied way of protecting assets not a way of ensuring that people are nice to each or that we each have a minimum amount to survive. The law protects people who already have power and mostly screws over people at the bottom. I don't have that much respect for the law.

The law cares way more about the rights of rapists than rape victims. And everyone you can talk to about this will tell you that it should. It must. Otherwise there would be a complete breakdown of law and order. We have to assume innocence. But we must not protect the innocence of young girls and boys who are raped. They are on their own.

We will blame their parents for not cloistering them. We will blame co-ed education. We won't blame the completely idiotic school system that will not allow adults to talk frankly about sex. We won't actually teach these children the difference between consensual sex and rape. We won't talk to the girls and teach them, "If you don't want it you really and truly have to say NO because he won't understand on his own. You will be thinking, 'Can't he see that I don't want this?' and you will cry later because no he won't see. What he sees is that his dick might get wet. You don't really matter. If you want to matter you have to matter to you first and you have to defend yourself. Start by saying 'no'."

Why don't people say this to young girls? Why don't people sit and talk to children for years and years beforehand about consent? Why don't we talk about self-sovereignty? Oh. Because then we might give the children the idea to have sex--right? They won't come up with it on their own. Whatever.

When I was younger, before I knew my sister had raped our brother or her children, when her kids were in the 7-11ish range I started pulling the kids aside and talking to them about consent and sex. I showed my nephew how to put condoms on a banana and I made him practice till he could do it without faltering. I told him I'd be happy to give him boxes to use while masturbating so he could continue practicing and get proficient so he doesn't feel silly once he has a partner. He said no thanks and looked freaked out.

My understanding is his step-father raped him within six months of that conversation. Based on my memories and the stories I was told. I guess he didn't need to worry about being awkward with his first partner. That was all awkward.

My sister's loud public attitude was that "there should be a veil between the knowledge of parents and children. In the mind of a parent every child should die a virgin." But she raped her children. The public discourse and the private actions don't line up even slightly. Honestly, to me this kind of attitude is pretty much what I hear when I hear Protestants talk about the poor. When I hear my atheist friends talk about the poor.

"The government shouldn't steal my money." Because it is better for you to have a second fancy sports car than for some kids to eat. Right.

There has been wealth distribution since the dawn of time. There have always been rich people and there have always been poor people. But in some eras the difference is less stark.

We have more wasteful shit in our lives than was ever fucking possible at any other point in history. What do we do with this wonderful excess? We hoard it. We are stingy and selfish. We are short-sighted.

I get the short-sighted self-absorbed attitude on the parts of my atheist child-free friends. In very specific ways they are only kind of part of the human race. They are an end point. They are not part of the future and they know it. Why should they care?

I don't get it from parents. I don't at all. Your children will have better lives if there is less distribution of wealth. Not if they have more and more and more compared to those around them. Their lives will become increasingly a slice of humanity. You can't associate with people who are too socio-economically different from you. That's scary. People in different classes behave differently.

I like living in a not-great neighborhood. I like that my kids are meeting a very wide range of people. Our neighborhood is definitely *not* primarily white. Some of the folks around here are comfortable financially but they are in the minority. We have a lot of vacant foreclosed houses. We have a lot of derelict houses kind of falling apart. We talk to everyone. My kids are learning how to behave with as many people in the world as I can possibly expose them to.

I want my children to have an in-their-gut understanding that having "things" is not because of entitlement or privilege. You don't automatically get these things in life. Some people make the choice to prioritize having things--that's a choice not a right. And if they don't get it--that's the breaks. There are no guarantees. There are no promises. And Paris Hilton no more "deserves" what she has than I deserved to be raped over and over.

It's a lottery. It's not about deserve. Things just happen.

I have to believe this. This is the entire foundation upon which I build my survival. I don't deserve things. If I have them it is an accident. If I have knowledge within my head that could make someone else's life better and it's doing nothing for me--isn't it selfish nearly to being criminal to withhold it?

I believe that we are social animals. We are a social species. We need community. We need to belong. Unfortunately people usually choose "people who feel like me" without ever really examining what that is founded on. Are you saying you only want to know people who were fortunate to have parents who were born into a certain class? How un-American of you.

It's funny sitting near geek culture. I'm not really a geek. I've lived in the Silicon Valley my whole life and I'm only quasi-participating in making my first website. Mostly I'm making my husband do it. But I have watched this culture emerge. I have seen it from the outside since I was twelve.

I hear the Oppression Olympics a lot. When geeks get together the subject of childhood bullying comes up constantly. No one remembers the times when they were taunting people because they were smarter and they weren't going to be stuck being losers like those other kids. I remember hearing that. The geeks who got beat up used to sneer when tests were handed back. See, here's proof that even if you can beat me up I am better than you and I will be through my whole life. So that childhood bullying, that largely grew out of the rage of frustrated children, is carried forward in life. Only who is on top changed.

In America we are very careful about Might Makes Right at this stage. We want it for the police--thus we are increasingly militarizing them. That's the wrong direction. People listen to rules that feel fair, not to things that are imposed under military guard. We like having our rights, motherfuckers.

I watch my kids moving through our neighborhood and I wonder what kind of adults they will be. Will they be selfish? There is no way to predict. Will they feel this terrible compulsion to build community? Will they already have that community?

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I should do to find a way to fit into the community I have more. I don't mean the people I know. I live somewhere. I live in a place and a time. How do I fit in this? If you restrict your friends to only people who are like you and you spend all your time in the car going from very carefully selected place to place... that's not community.

Community is the weird neighbor we always have long conversations with as we walk to and from the store or park. He gives my kids advice and talks to them about what it was like to work for PG&E as it was really spreading through the state. He's in his 70's and he worked for them for decades. He has great stories.

Months ago the topic of suicide came up kind of randomly. I was blunt, as I am wont to be. Since then he makes a point of saying, "Gosh I'm glad you are still here so I can talk to you. And your babies still need you. Keep going."

That's community. I don't have to go out of my way to see him. I don't have to laboriously schedule around our "activities". We just see him in our life. It feels good. I'm trying to get to know more neighbors. I think that at some point I may offer tutoring at the elementary school across the street. It would be fun. It would be a really nice way of getting to know more of the neighborhood kids. My children will need to know those kids whether they go to school with them or not.

Everyone is on a different path. I understand that everyone has a different load to carry. Different things they could share. Different needs and wants. I do understand that. But everyone has something that they could give to make someone else's life better. Not in a codependent way. I'm not recommending one more poly enmeshed hysterical relationship.

There are people in this world who are almost certainly actually suffering because they do not have a piece of information that is in your head. Is that your responsibility? Only if you want it to be. Only if you want to be part of something bigger than yourself. Only if you want to be humble about the fact that maybe all you have to give is that scrap of information and you can't construct an identity around helping people all the time.

Anger, frustration, entitlement, privilege--I believe they are all so entwined it is almost impossible to take them apart.

Privilege, in my parlance, is the lucky accidents in your life. Maybe you are white. Maybe you were born to wealthy parents. Maybe you were raised in an area with excellent public schools. Maybe your parents could afford to put you through college.

Can you see how these things don't just happen to everyone? That makes having them double plus awesome. Only if you were handed a huge bag of candy when you were five and you refused to ever share it you would be kind of an asshole. Privilege is like that bag of candy. You can share it. I'm not saying give up on having things or benefiting.

I own a house--well, there is still a mortgage. It will be paid off in less than ten years. Someday I will own a house. Because my husband bought it and paid for it and lets me live in it. I don't really feel like I should get too cocky about this.

Humility. I didn't do it. Taking too much pride in it--as if it were my accomplishment--would be ridiculous. This will be Noah's accomplishment. I can be proud of him and I can be grateful I benefit but I can't act like it is my right or just or natural that I get this.

Most of my anger displays come at the heels of feeling thwarted. My need for control is interrupted and the fireworks inside my skull are fantastic. I'm not trying to claim that I am superior or above these things.

But what do I do once I feel like that? When my privilege feels attacked? When I feel like I'm not getting something I feel entitled to?

That is what decides what kind of human being I am. I don't think that all child-free people are dead ends in the human race. I believe that a great many of the most important people throughout all time were child-free. But they made a choice to be part of something. Something that actually makes the world a better place.

I've been watching Burning Man for years. It makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about how many millions of dollars have been spent on a temporary city that damages the natural environment and is basically just about distraction.

If you need that kind of display and outlay and expense in order to find your "tribe" then I argue that your tribe is pretty artificial. That is not a sustainable kind of community. That is a mass waste sort of community. Welcome to America.

How many cities or even small poverty-stricken countries could be run for a year on what is spent on Burning Man?

Which isn't to say that I never entertain myself. I spend money I don't need to spend. I bought into the freakin Disney time share. That's elite privilege at its very snootiest if you ask me. I don't think that everyone who goes to Burning Man is bad. I don't think that everyone who goes to Disneyland is bad.

But what could we be doing with this time and money that wasn't so completely selfish? What could we be doing with this time and energy that isn't just about being entertained for a few days?

I'm not trying to sit on a high horse. I am part of my cohort. I pick up trash and talk to my neighbors. It's a slow start on building community. I donate a lot of money. I try to help people one-to-one whenever I can.

But I have to have resources to draw from in order to have anything to give. Honestly the trips to Disneyland make me feel more cheerful about the endless amount of giving I have to do in the rest of my life. Burning Man provides a lot of people with massive emotional support--I hear. Or it's a total flop. Apparently it's a coin toss year by year. But people still go back--like addicts.

What does caring about the poor mean? What does caring about someone other than yourself mean? Caring doesn't accomplish a lot. You have to work. What can you do to make the world better?

I keep trying to remind myself that I am not really past the point where I have to be completely focused on my kids. It's a privilege. It's a species-preference for children to be intensely cared for in the first few years. My oldest is almost five. My youngest is two and a half. I only have a couple more years before I won't be nearly as necessary.

What will I do with my time and energy? I don't think it will involve getting in my car and driving thirty or forty minutes until I get to a white neighborhood so I can feel comfortable. I wouldn't. I want to find a way to matter where I am. I may not be willing to enroll my kids in the school directly across the street but I want my kids to spout off, "My mom knew she wanted to homeschool her kids from when she was seventeen so please don't think this is any kind of negative judgment on the school--it's just a personal choice." And yes, it is a weird choice. Ask questions about it.

Part of the problem with "helping the poor" is that most of the time there is this tension between helping individual people and helping a systemic problem. The approaches are completely different and going in either direction means that a lot of people fall through the cracks.

What is the road forward?

I was having a chat with some women this weekend. One of the comments that sticks in my mind is a woman was saying that she has evolved in her life to the point where she doesn't feel like there is much point in being angry about injustice and trying to fight. Just love. Go through your life doing what you think is right and loving people and it will all work out.

I... I don't think I am capable of believing such hubris. Unless the "all work out" is that we all end up dead. Sure, that I believe. What will the world be like in fifty or a hundred years? I want to influence that. I truly do. And I don't think that sitting in my house or school in a carefully chosen neighborhood and driving in my car to meet up with carefully pre-selected people is the way to do it.

Chaos theory. Maybe I should study some.

1 comment:

  1. Change yourself and you have changed the world, so the saying goes. :)