Sunday, 21 October 2012

Let's Pull Apart This Pity Party


This one isn't really about Japan either. Sorry.
Erica is experiencing a lot of bourgeois guilt about hiring a nanny in Indonesia. She blogged recently about apologising to her nanny for being wealthy in the midst of poverty, then taking the woman out for dinner.
"People's pity is very disabling, and it stops you from getting on with things. It crushes you, and just when you think I'm going to hold up my head again and get on with life, people's pity stops it. They say 'oh I feel so sorry for you, what a terrible thing, how awful you'. 

You don't want to listen to that.

When it happens to people, what they want to hear is 'you're doing a great job'. 

Whenever there's a death or a trauma it's not good to pity people, it's better to just say 'carry on, you're doing a great job, I'm here to help you'."
The latter story sums up my feelings about the former.

I grew up in a welfare-dependent family of seven. While the material circumstances are in no way comparable with life in developing countries, I know how it feels to have less than the people around you and to know that they know. So I say with a great deal of conviction: people living in poverty do not want your pity. Ever. Pity is patronising and burdening and it diminishes your dignity. Especially when it is expressed as guilt.

How would Erica feel, I wonder, if she experienced this incident from the other side? If someone fabulously wealthy, let's say Oprah, swept into her life one day and apologised tearfully for being so privileged while pressing caviar and Dom Perignon into her hands, then wrote an article about it in her magazine. An article about poor Erica's difficult life and how much she, Oprah, had grown as a person by seeing how the less fortunate live. Especially since Oprah profits from her magazine, just as Erica does from her blog.

OK, I realise that I am being very unfair to Erica here. It's commendable to feel sorry for people who are in need, natural to experience guilt and totally OK to blog about that. But it isn't OK to put those feelings onto the nanny by telling her that you're sorry and you feel guilty. You apologise when you want someone to forgive you, to assuage your guilt. When you ask that of an employee on behalf of her entire nation you are crossing a line. How excruciating to have been that women in that conversation. Instead of taking her out for dinner, how about thanking her for her hard work with a bonus, at whatever the culturally appropriate bonus season is, that will buy her that new laptop battery so that she can finish her studies? How about supporting Cate Bolt and the amazing work she does with Foundation 18 in Indonesia?

When I wrote about breaking down after an orphanage visit I made it sound like a once off. The truth is I cry in the car on the way home pretty often, even though those kids have so much more than millions of other children. But I never, ever look sad when I am with them. I go in with a huge smile and high-five them and tickle them and blow raspberries on their little tummies and tell them what a good job they are doing of growing up big and strong. I don't clasp them to my bosom  and tell them how terrible and unfair it is that they  will never know what it feels like to have a mother or that statistics suggest that their futures will not be bright. They aren't characters in my story. They don't want my pity. They want to sit in my lap and have me read the book about the piggies one more time.
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