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Middle-Class Guilt

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Watching The Colbert Report recently I saw an interview with a fascinating Pulitzer Prize winning author named Katherine Boo who was promoting her latest book entitled Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity . In the book she details the daily struggles of several people she came to know during the three years she spent living in a Mumbai slum. Her lighthearted demeanor and sanguine outlook on the prospects of solving poverty in our own country prompted me to purchase her book in the hopes of being equally inspired. So as the show’s credits were rolling, I popped over to and placed my order.

A few days later a package arrived on my doorstep and I was struck by a wave of shame and guilt that took me by surprise. Before even opening the package and seeing the face of the young girl squatting in the squalor of a polluted stream brimming with garbage on the book’s cover, I was paralyzed by the thought that upon opening its pages and absorbing the gravity of the systemic desperation that its characters endured, I would once again be faced with the same overpowering sense of helplessness and abashment that I have experienced time and again. Not only would I feel the impotence of my inevitable inaction, but here I was about to read a book that I ordered over the internet from the lavish (as “lavish” as a Bed Stuy one-bedroom gets) comfort of my New York City apartment in between watching comedy shows on my computer.

Perhaps a slight overreaction on my part, but the guilt of being a middle-class American twenty-something bemoaning lagging internet speed and grousing about the lack of a decent Thai restaurant in the three block radius of my home occasionally overwhelms me leaving me in a near paralyzing shame spiral. It’s bad enough that I will more than likely do nothing to have a positive effect on the dire conditions the people I will read about in the book face on a daily basis, but the cavernous divide between their world and mine by the simple, arbitrary virtue of birth grips me as such an agonizingly vile iniquity that I am left feeling utterly helpless and small.

What could I even do to have any kind of real impact on those people’s lives? What would that action be besides a self-righteous guilt-fueled ego boost to make myself feel less bad for having more than they do while “finding myself” in the process. Even if I could help those few individuals the author writes about, what about the millions upon millions of others the world over who are just as desperate, if not more so. Were it that I could simply pack a bag, buy a plane ticket, get my shots, and hop on the next flight to Mumbai to take up arms in the battle against systemic poverty, I would happily do so and leave the trappings of my worldly possessions behind and fight the multitude of injustices across the globe starting with the slums of India. However the chilling reality is that, thanks to my student loans, I’m hovering around the $100,000 debt mark, which never seems to shrink despite my timely minimum payments each month and keeps me firmly in the grips of the working mob and severely limits any plans for extended international vigilante justice seeking. So, until I hit the lottery and use my winnings to finally build out that elaborate system of underground wombat tunnels that I stumbled upon as a child after the cold-blooded murder of my wealthy aristocrat parents on the ruthless streets of Gotham City, my run as masked globetrotting crusader Wombatman will have to remain on hold.

In the meantime I try to feel good about my relatively menial contribution to the larger global society by sending a monthly donation to my adoptive child in Africa via Children International. I’ll fight back tears every time I receive a letter from her family enclosed with a colored-in picture of an animal that calls her country home. And I’ll try not to feel guilty for switching to automatic monthly contributions instead of the hassle of going to the website once a month and navigating the three or four pages before heroically typing in my credit card number, expiration date and billing address “manually” handing over my $22 gift to help build a future for a child in need.

And I guess I’ll go ahead and read the book too.

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