First World Guilt

I’m eating dinner when the thought occurs to me that somewhere in the world another person is dying of hunger. Soon I’m overcome with guilt.

Most often I try to push these thoughts from my mind. Those people dying of hunger are so far away that we’re disconnected. The fact I’m eating dinner has nothing to do with the fact they don’t have any. It’s not my fault and there’s nothing I can do.

As soon as the thought has arrived, my brain gets distracted and it’s all forgotten about.

But still, something gnaws at me. I wonder whether I’m just choosing to forget the problem. After all that’s the easiest thing to do. To forget means to do nothing. Nothing is easy. But knowing this just increases my guilt. Do I want to be the type of person that chooses to forget the suffering of others?

Guilt

A few weeks ago, I was riding a train home after work. Every seat was filled and a small crowd of people were milling around near the doors. As the train pulled away from the station, a drunk man sitting alone started to sing at the top of his lungs. Bon Jovi. “OH! WE’RE HALFWAY THERE! WOAH-OH! LIVING ON A PRAYER!”

As he sang I looked around. A few people were smiling, enjoying the singing. He was a good singer. Most people were looking away, ignoring him, sitting in silence, pretending he didn’t exist. He started to shout to his audience as though he were on stage. “ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?!” Silence. “I SAID, ARE YOU READY TO ROCK!” A train filled with people, still silence. He went back to singing.

I started wondering how I should react. Just ignore him like everybody else? Instead, I looked over to him and we made eye contact. I smiled. The smile was meant to say, “Hey, you’re a good singer, you’re entertaining me.” But his singing started to falter as we looked at each other and it’s like his confidence had broken. In a train with everybody ignoring him it was easy, but now I was staring at him and now he knew somebody was actually paying attention.

He didn’t smile back, he stopped singing. Instead he started mumbling. “Nobody, not God, Islam, nobody can tell us why we’re here. Why we go through life. Nobody can tell us why we live. What the point of it all is.” I was overcome with sadness. I could understand his pain because I’ve had these thoughts before when depressed. The man sounded lonely, upset. Still he was ignored. I wanted to sit down and talk to him but I couldn’t. I admit, I was afraid. What would I say? What would people think?

The train pulled up at the next station where I needed to get off. As I sat waiting for the next train I couldn’t shake the man from my mind. He was drunk, unhappy, ignored. I could have easily imagined him jumping in front of a train or going home, drinking some more. Continue to drink every night.

I wondered how much of a responsibility I had to this man. I could have done something, but I did nothing. Doing nothing was easy. Nothing kept me comfortable, as it kept most people on that train comfortable. But I couldn’t shake this thought, what if this ignored man went straight home in his state and killed himself. I could have done something.

For a few days I felt guilty about this, until life took over and I had other things to worry about. I wonder how everybody else on the train felt. Did they even care? Were they also afraid to do something?

Food Guilt

Whenever I turn on the TV here in Australia, I can always find a channel with some cooking or food show on it. There was a time, maybe a century or so ago when food was considered a thing of sustenance. Food is one of the few basic things that we humans need for survival. For much of our history our lives have been focused on simply finding enough food to eat.

For many of us now that’s not a problem. We can be unemployed and homeless but there’s still little chance that we’ll die of hunger. Food is easy to come by.

In a world where survival is no longer a real concern, what do we do with our hearts and minds? We make a world of status and value. Having sustenance is still what we need, but we are sold an idea that we now must have the best sustenance available. Food is no longer something we simply eat, it is a lifestyle and an entertainment. We share photos of our food with friends to prove we live a life of excess. We watch programs on TV about how to make the tastiest cakes.

We live such comfortable lives that food is the equivalent of reading a book or watching a movie. Something to fill time and bring us comfort. We have such an abundance of food that we can waste it on making ourselves feel good. Yet in parallel with this other people don’t have any food. Which means two things really. First, that they’re going hungry. But second that they don’t get to feel good.

Perhaps I’m falling into a trap here. I’m not sure how good food does make us feel. Like most things there’s the possibility that we simply believe it makes us feel good because that’s what we’re told. If we believe Coca Cola is refreshing on a cold day, people will buy Coca Cola. But does Coca Cola make us happy?

Now the kicker for me is, I know deep down there really is a connection between our (my) overindulgence and poverty and suffering in other places of the world. Some people must go hungry so that we can overeat. Some must be poor so I can be rich. The usual retort I make to feel better about this is that there’s nothing I can personally do about it. I am trapped in the system and can’t make a change.

Yet we could all make a change, but we don’t. Partly because of greed, but also because to help out everybody we would have to give up some slice of our own comfort. Something we’d never be able to do. We don’t know how to make sacrifices.

Each generation believes they are the most civilized. They look at their parents and their old values and wonder how they could be so naive while believing all along that they can do no wrong. One day I will grow old and a young person will look at me and wonder how I could have been so stupid. Why didn’t I do anything? About poverty, hunger, global warming, all the problems I knew about. I’ll reply back that it’s hard to understand, it was a different time, many understood change was needed but few were willing to do so.

All our problems are like that depressed alcoholic on the train. There in plain sight, but completely ignored. And nobody has the courage to stand up and do anything about it. Not even me.

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