Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 16: Knowing the poor 2 (Directness)

Posted by Simon on May 16, 2010

This morning at church two guys from our class led us in the third discussion about Poverty. In our first session they asked “Do you know the poor?” and, “Who are the poor?” and “Why are people poor?”. The questions helpfully uncovered assumptions, personal experiences, and a full range of possibilities as to causes, without descending into idealogical/political debate or absurd characterizations of the poor or ourselves.

Last week, and again this week, we were asked, “Do you know the poor? Literally, do you know anyone who’s poor?”. I haven’t asked permission of the group to share our discussion so for the sake of this post, just ask yourself that question.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

If you don’t know anyone who is poor then I suggest you get to know someone who does (even an organization). You’ll then have a weak link that holds enormous potential.

Merely being conscious that I am, in fact, connected to someone seems to make a difference to me being more compassionate and more committed (i.e. doing something about it). ‘Directness’ as a relational dimension of life helps me think more concretely about my place in the world. This helps both when thinking about the poor, but also, among other things, in thinking about food and trade. A human being with a beating heart picked my asparagus. I am connected to them (and therefore have a responsibility to them), albeit mediated by a number of organizations, financial transactions and people. Directness probably explains why child sponsorship works well, because you can see the link.

Very simply, you could be just two or three degrees of separation from someone who needs something that you have. What I don’t like about the diagram above is the dollar signs. It bothers me that my relationship with the poor, or anyone else, is defined in monetary terms. I don’t like it because money, like power (another relational dimension, see post and comments from Day 13), seems to confer value in so many people’s eyes. Money of course IS power in this relationship, but it’s not the only power (unless it’s the only mediator, which in most cases it is) and it still shouldn’t confer ‘value’ or dignity. It also reduces their multidimensionality to a dollar figure. To mitigate that I gave everyone a beating heart.

Social Network Analysis is an exploding field that could eventually help us better realize our connectedness to each other (see Nicholas Christakis’ video at the end of Friday’s post for an example). But just being aware that you already have a relationship with the poor is a first step.

Actually, make that a second step. How much do you disclose of your personal needs – material or otherwise – to other people, even people close to you? Same here. It’s probably the same for them, too. If we’re not prepared to be vulnerable to one another in our current socio-economic relationships why do we think we’ll have the right attitude to love the poor, with humility and respect, when we meet them? This is where the other element of directness comes in. We need to learn to unmask ourselves, to expose ourselves enough that our relationships can become ones of mutual giving and receiving.

Anyway, give that diagram a ponder with respect to your relationship with the poor, or those who grow your vegetables or make your shirts. How does it help your thinking?

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One Response to “rLiving Day 16: Knowing the poor 2 (Directness)”

  1. Simon said

    I was just thinking about the diagram and realized that the arrows only point one way. Talk about a power relationship!!

    So those arrows need to go both ways. Restoring dignity to the poor (and the rich, for that matter) surely requires some kind of reciprocation, an exchange of things valued by each.

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