Guilt

1 02 2010

It’s hard not to feel guilty after leaving a school full of kids and teachers behind.  It felt like leaving them in the lurch.  It’s hard not to feel guilty when you get to travel all over the world for nearly a year.  It’s hard not to feel guilty when you aren’t earning a salary.  It’s hard not to feel guilty to have such a great fiancée that I love and to get to spend so much time together.

I know that I worked hard for this opportunity, but I still feel guilty sometimes.

It’s especially easy to feel guilty when you are living in South Africa with the remnants of apartheid staring you in the face.  There is so much economic disparity here.  I feel guilty with our iPhone, iPod, PSP, netbook, Macbook Air, locally bought cellphones.  I am a techno geek, and I love my tech toys, but it’s easy to take my wealth for granted.  Upper-middle class is a term that I laugh at – I guess it is an adequate description, when you think of really rich folks with multiple houses and Porsches and all, but isn’t it laughable putting “middle” in there?  What’s so middle about it?  That we are knee-deep in the middle of all our wealth?

Treaty of Waitangi - Maori version (translated)

English version ... a bit different, no?

It’s not just material possessions.  It’s economic privilege in all its forms.  I feel guilty about the ability of my parents to pay for my schooling so I wouldn’t have school loans to pay off.  About how they could help me buy a condo years ago, which sold for a profit large enough to travel this year on and still have enough to acquire property on my return.  Then I feel guilty for feeling guilty about that, like it is dishonoring their hard work and generosity.  Guilt is a bottomless pit.

A grizzled old man dressed in ragged clothes on crutches stopped me on the street today.  I was walking by him and like usual, I smiled as I passed.  Maybe I smile so they know I don’t look down on them, as I am probably unfortunately looking down on them.  He said something to me but I had already passed.  I stopped, though, because I thought he said, “You are scared.”  I turned around and shook his hand as he held it out, showing my bravado.  He repeated himself, and this time I heard him say, “You are scarce.”  I thought he meant that Asians, meaning fair-skinned Asians, meaning Japanese/Korean looking Asians, are scarce in Cape Town.  I nodded and he said again, “Don’t be scarce around here.”  I then thought he was mistaking me for someone else he knew (as I am used to… after all, don’t all Asians look alike?).  He said, “I don’t see you driving around the corner anymore,” and pointed to the road leading to our old guesthouse.  I finally understood that I had seen him before.  He usually stands at a particular intersection, as many poorer people do.  Most sell magazines, trinkets, even jokes.  Some just beg for money.  He then looked at me and said something I couldn’t make out, but his hands held out to me and his pleading face told me he wanted money or food.  I shook my head, smiled, and said, “Sorry” as pleasantly as possible.  He smiled, shook my hand again, and we parted.

I walked into Woolworth’s (which is a fairly up market store here, kind of in the Whole Foods category of stores for South Africa, without quite as much fancy gourmet or organic) because Jocelyn and I had bought a glass pitcher to make iced tea but wanted another one to cool down boiled water for drinking.  As I scanned the aisles for the pitcher, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  Did I really need two pitchers?  I headed for the prepared foods area and bought a hot Cornish pasty.  I thought about how eating them makes me thirsty and bought a large cold bottle of water.  I headed back out to the street.

I walked back out to the street and saw a flash of silver crutches two blocks down. Putting on some speed, I caught up to him.  I handed him the pasty and said, “Something for you to eat,” rather obviously.  I gave him the water and said, “So you won’t be thirsty after you eat.”  He said, “God bless you” and pumped my hand up and down vigorously.  He repeated, “God bless you” and then said, “Give my regards!”  Perhaps he meant Jocelyn.  Perhaps he meant God.

Does guilt help?  Perhaps temporarily, but in the end, not that much.  In the end it is just a substitute for taking responsibility.  What truly would make a difference?  How can wealth be redistributed evenly?  Am I prepared to give up my own wealth to help equalize it?   Nothing can go up if something doesn’t come down.

Post-apartheid Cape Town is a particularly extreme example.  But we have seen it everywhere.  Descendants of laborers brought from India are denied land rights by other Fijians.  The Maori were subjugated and cheated by colonists in New Zealand.  The Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc in Cambodia.  Our own troops caused suffering in Vietnam.  There are class divisions between hill tribes and Thais in Thailand.  I’ve been learning more and more about the history of Haiti, and the devastating long-lasting impact from past American and European intervention.

Martin Luther King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  He also said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”  Am I one of the “good people?”  Am I an oppressor, tangentially or directly?  How can I productively spend these months in South Africa?  Is it foolish to assume I can make any sort of difference in only several months?  Is it heartless not to try?

One thing is for sure – it will take more than just guilty feelings and Cornish pasties.  But a full belly never hurt anyone.

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