The most frustrating conversation no one is having

I’m a middle-class white male in my late twenties, in 2017

Statistically speaking, I’ve won a cosmic lottery in terms of opportunities and socio-economic status. I’m not ‘rich’. At least I’m not rich by my idea of what rich is, because I still need to put in a hell of a lot of effort for the things I want. Still I need to recognise the facts.

  • I have a job where I work my ass off, I did 120 hours of overtime in six weeks, a few months ago – but it pays decently and I enjoy the work.
  • I rent a place, and won’t be able to afford to buy anything that I’d want for quite a few years – but it’s a damned nice place in a great suburb about three kilometres from my office. I wouldn’t have gotten it had my landlord not liked the first impression I made, which I did make because of my educational background.
  • A few people in my immediate family struggle with mental illness. It’s difficult, often harrowing, to deal with seeing people I love become something less than or other than human – but we live in a time and area where psychiatrists have at least an idea of the problem. I can sacrifice my holiday-savings to support them while they are taken up for observation in a psychiatric hospital.

I’m stressed out often, by work, by family, and by my responsibilities to friends and society in general. It’s extremely easy to look at what I deal with and think that I have it tough. And sometimes I really do have it tough, but the fact of the matter is that I have so much more than so many people. I know this because I’ve been on the other end of the spectrum.

I got into university on my grades. I’m a smart person, but not so disciplined that I’d receive one of the few bursaries that are given to white, South African social science students. I had to work my way through my higher education, earning 3000 rand (~$250 at that time) per month, while trying to study full time, from a home that I wanted desperately to avoid.

Those were hard times.

What gets me now, what really irks me, is when people in the middle to upper class say money doesn’t buy happiness. They say it when someone struggling financially day dreams about being rich. They completely mishear the issue and reply with something infuriatingly empty to the poor person. The unsaid subtext of the conversation goes something like this:

“I go to sleep worrying about whether my car will start in the morning, and if it doesn’t whether it’s the fuel I might not be able to afford, or a car part I definitely can’t. If my car doesn’t start, I still need to get to work, because I work a job where I’m expendable enough that I could be replaced if I can’t make work, so someone else will be earning my salary while I’m not there. I might need to spend money on taxis because I can’t afford the lump-sum fix. That means sacrificing the getaway I’ve been planning for my children and myself. I fantasise that I could just worry about my son’s broken leg or what kind of chemo we’re putting my grandmother on. I fantasise about wealth. I fantasise about every decision I make not carrying potentially massive consequences, and about every thing I want not being a trade off against something I already have.

“Yes well money doesn’t buy happiness. You can be rich and depressed. A fancy car will not fix that.”

That lack of understanding boils my blood. Of course you will still have troubles when you have money. But you will not sit with the deafening static of anxiety about something completely unrelated to the moment you’re trying to enjoy; you will not be constantly pessimistic because you keep disappointing yourself or your loved ones with an over-budget; you will not be judged for having children by people who will say you should have been more financially responsible as though you’re life is supposed to be a perfect expression of fiscal discipline because “that’s the way it is. You don’t get to enjoy the simple pleasures because you’re poor. Fuck you.”.

The absolute worst are the people who are so (relatively) wealthy that they get to say talking about money is tacky. Money is like oxygen – if you have so much of it that you don’t even have to think about it, then of course it seems silly when other people keep discussing it. But they’re suffocating. They legitimately need to worry, and talk about how much oxygen they have left or have spent.

You can have problems with money, but you can have those same problems compounded onto a hell of a lot of other problems because you’re poor. Quipping a cliche about more money more problems or money not buying happiness to someone in that position is obtuse and thoughtless.

I wasn’t planning to write all that

I started this post with the below paragraph, and then wanted to give it some context:

___

People given power or privilege by the system have the luxury of being simultaneously oppressive and dignified. The oppressed scream back, and are called barbaric, uncivilised, brutish. Comfort is anathema to empathy.

___

It’s common in South Africa for people to burn schools because the municipal government doesn’t give them service delivery. They burn trains or buses because of transportation issues. When middle class people watch the news and see poor communities protesting. They call them barbaric and stupid. They’re right, right?

They’re wrong. Those poor people have tried conventional methods. They’ve tried letters and peaceful protest. They’ve been patient with having no water or electricity – sometimes for years. So now they have to scream at us. Now they have to set their own communities on fire just to be heard. It’s not stupidity, it’s desperation. We know that’s what it takes for them to be noticed, because we only hear about their troubles when they do things this way. They’re the victims of a corrupt and apathetic system and we still treat them as though they’re the ones in the wrong.

We’re blind because our world is the same size as our comfort zone.

That’s the broad point I was trying to get at with the original paragraph. You might not be a bigot, but we live in a bigoted system. Even the most forward-thinking white middle class liberals who have a fashionable understanding of the status quo, are quite likely intellectually incestuous people who, in their comfort, are passively profiteering from a sexist, racist, capitalist system that gives them the capacity to discuss topical points at cocktail parties that they’re doing nothing to change.

It makes me sad to think that you can’t force someone to open their mind if they believe it’s already open.

 

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