Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A different reality

Passing through Central America and Colombia (and I’m sure it will be no different to the south), the stark differences between "haves" and "have-nots" is impossible to ignore, but it's still difficult to appreciate.

In the States, it's so much easier to avoid contact with the poor. We have more effective infrastructures and socio-economic devices to isolate classes: vast distances, which the mobile classes use to advantage, commuting along limited-access corridors; zoning and building codes, demographic-based location of employment opportunities, limited public transportation and public welfare facilities, and, of course, law enforcement (a poor person in an affluent community is likely to draw disproportionate attention.)

Universally, the privileged claim the high ground, as effluent and pollution settles into the lowlands; or they take the seashores, where water and fresh breezes scrub their world clean. (It's not just the "view" that draws them there.) (In cities, the "high ground" is often in hotels and skyscrapers.)

Those who cannot afford homes with filtered air conditioning, bottled water, refrigeration, stoves, who cannot afford cars, who must live and walk alongside the trucks and busses belching toxic fumes, whose sewer and sanitation systems are inadequate; these are the ones who bear the greatest burden, not only from their own waste, but from that of the entire society. The least among us have the fewest defenses.

I suspect, like me, most who live in the “first world” have absolutely no comprehension of what it means to live in poverty. What it means to be surrounded by filth and squalor, drinking dirty water, eating unwholesome food, with access to little or no medical care, living in absolute uncertainty.

Why are some humans so privileged and entitled, while so many more lead desperate lives in which basic survival is the all-consuming preoccupation?

And for me, who has led a comfortable existence: of what help is it to sympathize with the poor? I can do absolutely nothing to aid in their plight. Are we, who are privileged, to be ashamed or miserable at our good fortune? Are we expected to solve the World’s problems (which are truly unsolvable)? How, in good conscience, can one conduct one’s life?

All this obviously creates discomfort, and it would be impossible to bear, were it not for human mechanisms that “buffer” reality; that in fact deceive us into believing that all is well (even if, intellectually we acknowledge there are a few problems out there.)

I can ponder all this, then sit down to a nice meal, or watch television, or go for a drive. I am still in a different reality.

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