James Shelley, a London thinker, posted something on his blog http://www.jamesshelley.net that got me thinking about victims and heroes. Part of his point was “ Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes toward you (or one another). Where power triad exists,common unity is altogether impossible. This ought to give us pause when we consider the manner by which we run “social programs” as a society. It seems that most altruistic, religious, and community service organizations are founded upon doctrines of heroism: “We will save you!” Tragically and inadvertently, many of the best intentioned social programs thus reinforce the power dynamics that victimized clients and recipients in the first place. The whole system needs a serious rethink from the roots of human interaction up, not from the rhetoric of hero ideologies down!”(please read the whole post here)
I have very briefly met James at Pod Camp London 2011 where he spoke eloquently about whether to create, consume, or stream and where we as individuals fit on the continuum. The ideas behind this speech seem to come form his post here and I encourage you to read it. James is a thoughtful contributor to our ideas on society and the world but in his post I think there is something else to think about before heroism and victimhood and those roles within assisting our fellow humans. That thing is shame.
Shame is defined by the free dictionary as” A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace” and according to cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, “shame is a violation of cultural or social values”. This is for me the sticking point and the place where we need to start in our value of anyone that by their own admission is suffering. That part by the way, by their own admission, is the fundamental step for me in offering my resources to anyone who asks me and is also the place where shame inserts itself in to the communities collective will to help and that individuals sense of self.
The formula for me goes something like this. I need help with X, where X is the issue I’m facing. If I need help with X then I must be less than or less capable than those people who do not have this issue. I feel this way because my society says that if I need help with X then I am unworthy or pitied in society. Because I have issue X and cannot deal with it myself independently then I feel shame. I feel shame because I have violated a cultural or social value of self reliance and the ability to take care of myself and my issue. If I feel shame then my status in my own eyes and societies is lower than those who do not need it and I swing easily into victimhood. If I am a victim and my status is lower then the helper or the hero, then the helper or hero has a higher status. Then we end up exactly in that unequal power dynamic James was talking about: victimhood and heroism.
I think the place we must begin to work on as individuals is that sense of shame when we need help. This is true for mental health, violent crime, rape, poverty, homelessness or any other destructive social/medical force at work in our communities. We must work on removing the shame of needing help. That for me is an individual struggle and something once achieved can be passed on to our children, family, and friends.
Now you might say, and quite rightly, what about those people who are already feeling that shame and helplessness/victimhood? What can we do to help them? That is a loaded and dangerous question for me because personally I need to examine why I want to help. Do I want to be the hero? Do I want to feel superior or tick that “do something good” box on my list of things to do? These all raise my status and raising my status for me leads to my being the hero.
What I have begun consciously thinking, and not always successfully, is that my first responsibility is to offer my status as equal to anyone that may need my assistance. My second responsibility is to find out if my assistance is needed or asked for? My third responsibly is if it is asked for then to offer that assistance without raising my status and lowering someone else’s. My greatest responsibility though is to not treat any of these issues like they are an obstacle in my day or an inconvenience when my assistance is sought. I cannot ignore pain and I can only assist if I see the person I am assisting within the same status as I see myself. Also as importantly I can only offer that assistance if i am capable of sharing it.
If we can begin to think consciously when we see someone who is homeless/in poverty/in crisis/in need of comfort in this way then maybe we equal what is often an unequal relationship with our fellow community members. While this is not a clean, works in every situation , good for everyone , answer to our collective welfare it is something for me that can work and if we work on it we may be able to eliminate the creep of shame.