There’s a terrible choreography that only the wealthy know, and which they teach to their children, and which is kept secret. You’re in your car or your taxi or your auto-rickshaw, and a figure appears by one side, palms outstretched, pleading for your generosity. You run a quick, inhumane scan for need — are they disabled? old? pregnant? do they have young babies? — and, according to scan results, you either reach into your wallet and give away the smallest denomination on hand, or you stare straight ahead, avoid eye-contact, and conjure memories of other great givings, clinging to self-respect. And so we rehearse our apathy.
We deaden our compassion, piece-meal. We practice being a foot away from a hungry person and looking away. Worst, I think: we reinforce that in order to be moved to Giving, the suffering of the asker must be evident and stirring to us; that simply the knowledge of lethal inequality isn’t reason enough to share our heaped excesses. Watching the news lately has been like sitting at that traffic light for two months straight, except there isn’t just one person pleading at the window, there are five crore, and the light isn’t changing to green anytime soon, and we’re reaching into our wallets. And that’s good.
I’ve made a handful of donations. Small efforts that’ve let me keep up with the news without feeling complicit in it. I know you’ve been generous in ways too, whoever you are. (Making donations, I wrote in my journal one evening, is like shopping for brief bursts of feeling like a Decent Human Being. It struck me that I’m a horrifying capitalist.) P. messaged on a group-chat, asking, “How to deal with the guilt of being privileged? Has anybody been through this?” I have. Then S. texted last week: “have you heard of something called ‘compassion fatigue’?” I had.
“My therapist brings it up,” I typed back. Turns out hers had too. Compassion fatigue, per Google: “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of suffering people, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” In other words, seeing so many ‘please donate’ links that you numb off and click none. B., who’s been out reporting on the reverse-migration front-lines, told me, “It’s wrenched open an existing class divide, and it makes our class too uncomfortable.” Guilt, burnout, discomfort. All of it spoke to me.
And I thought: huh, I really manage to have a lot of problems about other people’s problems, no? Trained well by the consumerist self-care revolution, we take these angsts to our yoga mats and our therapists and our meditation apps, all methods I’m a firm believer in but which, nowadays, can feel a bit sinister sometimes — like a person hasn’t eaten in days and is pleading for a little change and their baby is crying and their feet are blistered, and I’m sitting a foot away, with enough to spare, but I’m staring straight ahead, face blank and shoulders relaxed, and I’m taking deep, filling breaths, and I’m picturing myself as a cloud against a blue sky.
I’ve been thinking about a conversation a friend and I had some time last year, about generosity and kindness. Being kind, built on the root ‘kin’, he said, means being good to people you feel a sense of kinship with — a sense of sameness. But ‘generous’ (which traces back to Latin’s ‘generosus’ — ‘of noble birth’) comes with an awareness of inequality built into it. Generosity is the instinct to give not because you feel a sense of sameness with the recipient, but because you’re aware of a hierarchy in which you have more than they do.
Generosity, in other words, isn’t a feeling you need to be moved to, or a whim to wait on, or a choice. It’s a duty that springs into existence wherever an inequality does. “Privilege guilt”, I think, is just a simple dispatch from a working conscience of that duty is being shirked. It’s a notification of pending debts.
It’s our better natures breaking through, insisting that everyone should eat enough before anyone takes a third, fourth, thousandth helping. Like male loneliness and Brahmin over-achievement pressure, “privilege guilt” among the wealthy is an oppressor’s ache — a problem created for the oppressor, by the fact of oppression, and one whose only cure is in ceasing to oppress. There’s no shortcut. A working conscience won’t sleep easy while feeling quietly complicit in the starvation of your compatriots. That’s it. I sent these thoughts to A. and she replied: “If we are so hell-bent on making ourselves happy, we should realise that giving is possibly the best way of ensuring it.” By not giving in big and small ways every day, she said, “we’re actually depriving ourselves of a chief source of the emotion we’re all running after like mad dogs”. I wonder (one must) if all this hemming-and-hawing about generosity is another side-effect of having replaced religion with consumption.
Every religion mandates charity but our new gods, beaming up brightly from grids and ads, tell us only what next to buy ourselves in order to Be Happy. And capitalism thrives on its 1% victors believing, constantly, that True Contentment sits right on the other side of this next purchase. That hardening our hearts to other people’s hunger will settle as insomnia and anxiety and knots in our shoulders — they don’t put that in the car and diamond ads. Nor do the therapists and newage yoga YouTubers just explicitly say: listen, to truly relax your chest, break your accumulation addiction. Just give more.