Justice and Advocacy

The Pity Accusation

“When I was poor and complained about inequality they said I was bitter; now that I’m rich and I complain about inequality they say I’m a hypocrite. I’m beginning to think they just don’t want to talk about inequality.” –Russell Brand

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of backlash for being so open about my struggles with illness and income.

I’m in the process of writing a quite lengthy post, with over 100 footnotes of research on why I am not alone in this. But in the meantime, I want to respond to the people who see me as a willfully lazy complainer.

I could go on for pages upon pages of anecdotes and explanations. How when I’m afraid every day of losing my job, all stability is temporary – and why lack of job security isn’t something I can control. How I dropped out of college immediately when I realized my parents hadn’t filed their taxes, leaving me in needless and unplanned debt. How every solution I’m presented with is one I’ve already thought of and tried.

Going back to school? Countless applications and meeting with advisors revealed that no grants would be awarded, and education isn’t free.

Applying for loans? Done it. I can get a few hundred dollars at a time, and I am very good about paying them off quickly. In fact I regularly pawn our (outdated and nearly worthless) electronics to get through a few days of necessities.

Moving in with someone to help us get on our feet? Did that. It only wasted time and left us stranded, because the patience of the rich wears thin when faced with the reality of illness and limited opportunities.

Many friends have offered to get me involved in their pyramid scheme and commission-based jobs, and when I explain that I can’t afford to gamble, they throw up their hands, saying “I tried to help, but you’ve turned down my solution.”

No number of anecdotes is going to convince people not to judge me. My own sister called me “pitiful instead of powerful,” and I’ve had countless friends say that I’m too negative, I’m not getting better fast enough for them, and I just want to have a dramatic pity party for myself.

This is what it looks like to break the cultural taboo surrounding common issues.

My situation is truly not much different than that of most Americans living below the poverty line. Whether the circumstances surround displacement, loss of family members, illness or disability, or just the plain old lack of opportunity in this economy, the results are the same.

I want to make this abundantly clear: I am not living under the assumption that my life is particularly more difficult than that of most other people. I know I have access to clean water and the internet, and millions don’t. I know that my childhood can easily be found mild by comparison with what others have endured. I know that I have much to be grateful for.

But I also recognize that everyone who wants me to shut up about inequality and injustice is going to be disappointed.

For anyone else who is struggling: you are not alone. You don’t have to be grateful that it’s not worse. You are not obligated to be in contact with toxic people just because they are less toxic than others. You are also not required to live in shame over what you cannot control.

And no list of advice from people who are lucky – nothing more and nothing less than lucky – will solve your own personal situation.

Perhaps I will eventually be more stable. Perhaps I will someday be able to live without the need for charity. Perhaps my hard work will produce different results than it has so far. Even if these things happen, I hope that it will not stifle my passion for the many people who don’t get lucky.

Because the system of the modern world, if it does not change, will always leave more and more people in constant anxiety and struggle for a basic quality of life.

The so-called American Dream is a myth, and the few people who make the leap from poverty to wealth are the exceptions, not the rule.

In his 2004 book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright paraphrased John Steinbeck saying, “In America…the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

I refuse to pretend that things are different than they are.

I refuse to dissociate through my everyday experiences, acting like business as usual in this society is acceptable.

I refuse to believe that keeping a roof over my head and nutrition in my body should be this difficult.

And I know that it is this difficult. I’m not exaggerating or ignoring the obvious jackpot of whatever get-rich-quick scheme or piece of perfect advice that will solve everything.

I’ve found that people who are healthy think that they’ve done something to deserve it. The same goes for people who are wealthy. Even if they don’t say it in so many words. The judgment and avoidance, because I am failing to meet the impossible standards placed upon me, are very real.

I refuse to be the perfect victim I’m expected to be. I will say exactly how wrong things are, and how to change them, and work to change them.

The accusation that I am just being negative and living in self-pity is not one I take personally. It is simply the reaction of a culture that is shocked at the idea of being open and outspoken about finances, mental illness, and a very broken medical system.

Nothing will change if the taboo is not broken, if the victims of a totally unjust society remain silent.

My power is in speaking up.

Obviously, I’m going to.

Further reading

Elephant and Mouse: A Fairy Tale by R.L. Stollar

On Being a Perfect Victim