One of my colleagues woke up this morning to no heat in subzero wind chill weather. He escaped to a Starbucks with his family to get warm and to use the internet on a morning where a major project was due.
It reminded me of a Winter Service Break where we had to spend just one night in a drop in Center (by ourselves). We served a bunch of people at the center for dinner and fun in the late afternoon. Essentially the place is a living room atmoshphere where people can “drop in” to get a shower, a meal and some companionship. We served food, played cards and generally made conversation. After the guests left we locked doors and settled in for the night. It was then that we noticed.
I stopped counting at 12.
So sleeping on the floor was no longer an option. I propped myself up on two chairs in my sleeping bag and drifted off. My daring colleague called us a bunch of wusses and threw his sleeping bag on the floor and got inside throwing one arm outside of it.
“Those mice are more scared of you then they are of–AHHHHHHH!”
We jumped to attention at his scream as a mouse ran over his arm.
I looked down and saw about 4 or 5 of the critters circling my chair-bed as if I was in the mouse version of Jaws.
Ed, my aforementioned colleague said it best:
“Dude, I’m all for solidarity with the poor, but how about dignity?”
Wise words. And since then I’ve taken them to heart. It moved me to write to my colleague this morning: “Solidarity always leads to dignity. Use this experience to lobby for the poor.”
I’ve also noticed that in the more progressive Catholic circles there often are people who bend towards one pole or the other of solidarity or dignity. There are some who say, live in Catholic Worker homes in solidarity with the poor and literally pick people up off the street and treat people the way Jesus would. They live in relative squalor. Sometimes they have bedbug issues and cleanliness is not at an all time high. And they are willing to live like this because poor people often have to. There are volunteer communities who live in homes with broken appliances or other household issues because “poor people don’t get to fix their homes–they can’t afford it.”
Then there are those who are leaning towards the dignity end. Some go to the extreme of merely doing charity. They raise money, they promote advocacy, maybe even they do a habitat project. They recognize that people in the world have problems and that they can help. So they do so. But they never quite understand at a deep visceral level what the plight of the poor is like. It is always a “them” and “us” polarity.
The truth is that we need both of these drives. We need to have experiences of solidarity in order to remind us deeply that people are being robbed of dignity. We need to feel their indignity to see that we are not so different.
We need not abandon dignity altogether however. Experiences of solidarity need not result in choosing to live indignantly. Rather all of this needs to result in our living for one another joyfully. Can we look at our luxuries and live without them in order to more gratefully provide for others? “How little can we live with and retain our dignity?” is a great question to ask ourselves.
However, we can’t let our own dignity slip away. Everyone should have a comfy bed, shelter, enough to eat, access to health care. I’d argue that a computer and good internet access is getting close to being needed in order to keep up with society. I once chastised a student who said he saw a guy with a nice phone but he spent a lot less money on clothing for his kids. Certainly priorities need to be in order, but we also need to think about what that phone provided him with. A status symbol like a nice smartphone might get him a better job. What if he said that he doesn’t own a cell phone or didn’t have an email address? How would the person interviewing him regard him? What if he didn’t have an address? You can see the downward spiral in our elitist minds. Dignity is all too easily robbed in our developed world where Americans are clearly the 1% by global standards.
“Nobody should have to live like this.” I said to my colleague and indeed that experience has charged my energies in lobbying for the poor. It’s not enough to allow yourself to face day to day indignities and in doing so claim solidarity as your prize for being above it all. Rather, we need to experience solidarity and take steps towards restoring dignity. The reverse is also true. It’s not enough to recognize dignity is what’s needed and to throw money at the problem. What’s needed is solidarity as well. We need to see the other as ourselves and in doing so also see Christ in our midst. That should be enough to recognize that the other indeed can easily be ourselves. It’s not about how others are different but rather it’s about how we are all the same.
Solidarity needs to keep its cousin dignity close by. Otherwise we will always keep those who live in poverty on the outside. And dignity needs solidarity to keep providing all of us with the experiences of poverty, for that empowers us to feel for others and to treat them as we would like to be treated.