The objective of this site is odd. It used to be almost embarrassing to talk about. Advocating for a new way to look at poor people, poor women in particular, may seem unrealistic, impractical or even, as I’ve been told, arrogant. But after a year of research and conversations with many people, I am more confident than ever that it has value. There is no part of society that succeeds without people feeling an emotional or spiritual connection. Businesses must hire or develop “passionate” and “engaged” employees to win. Painters, movie directors and musicians have to provoke a deep reaction or resonance in their audiences. Politicians and diplomats find that their ability to “connect with” and elicit trust in people determines whether their policies ever get a chance. So the notion that jobs, education and safety nets are not enough, the notion that our country can be better faster and at any stage of those programs if we nurture a positive emotional connection to helping the poor — well, maybe that notion is not so far-fetched. With this in mind, I listened to the State of the Union address. I thought I would be writing a post about that tonight. But then I read the Rolling Stone cover article about Pope Francis. Elected last March, his impact on the world reveals that there is a real hunger for another level of engagement with the topic of poverty.
I highly recommend the excellent Rolling Stone article by Mark Binelli. I won’t summarize it here. Instead here four quotes from his story and why I found them particularly relevant to the purpose of this site:
– “Pope Francis…a man whose obvious humility, empathy and above all, devotion to the economically disenfranchised has come to feel perfectly suited to our times”
People have responded with delight because he surprised us. We are used to people in positions of high power: 1) accepting privileges of their status and 2) Taking very pragmatic, unemotional, analytical approach to poverty. Perhaps Binelli says he is “perfectly suited to our times” because like Nixon going to China, only a person of highest positional privilege could impress modern people by rejecting it and championing the cause of the powerless. In addition, in a time of high income inequality, this may well be the perfect model: More men and women of influence finding higher levels of actualization through empathy and action on behalf of the less fortunate.
– Binelli report that, when preaching about the Judgement Day, the Pope “implores the crowd to think of the prospect of meeting one’s maker as something to look forward to” “He looks up from his script twice to repeat key lines: avanti senza paura ( ‘go without fear’ )”
At a time in which fear is being used liberally for many political, economic and interpersonal control objectives, along comes someone who seems want people to feel good and fearless. Poverty can’t improve if people on both sides feel helpless or fearful. Immense opportunities can emerge if, when affluent people see poor people, they see the potential instead of dismal stereotypes or statistics. Similarly, when poor people gain confidence and self-respect they see and use more of the resources at their disposal.
– “…his recognizable humanity comes off as positively revolutionary.” … “Since his election last March, Francis has consistently confounded expectations with the simplest of gestures”
Many of us read the example of how he went to pay his own hotel bill after being elected Pope. In fact, we live in a world of symbols that have major impacts. So a grand gesture or major donation is not needed. A smile for a worker, a word of recognition, a courtesy offered at a door. They can all change a low-income person’s day and life. We are all wealthy potential donors of countless bits of “recognizable humanity”.
– “He describes a ‘culture of prosperity’ that ‘deadens us’ to the misery of the poor”
Although Pope Francis was referring to societal situation, there is an analogous issue at the individual level. People who grow up in prosperity may be ‘deaf’ rather than dead to poverty. It it is hard for people who have never experienced lack of money to really understand poverty and empathize with poor people. In some cases, when affluent people push themselves to think about poverty it raises such a repellent prospect that they end up more alienated from the po0r than before. One approach is for people to start by focusing on the objectives or aspirations that they share with poor people, for example, a commitment to protecting their children or, the desire to become proficient at a job. Starting from a point of shared values or ambitions can create a valuable basis for empathy.
The Pope with the winning smile has much to do, but he already gave us all a great gift. He broke a barrier that had been invisible. It is now ok to acknowledge that an emotional or moral desire to do something is an acceptable and important part of the discussion of what and how much to do about poverty. He has opened doors and created momentum. It is now up to us to use them.