Stop judging people and start helping them

Posted on September 30, 2013 in Inclusion Debates – opinion/comment
September 30, 2013.   David Shearman

Many years ago, a friend of mine underwent chemotherapy. She found it a difficult experience, as many do, but what was most difficult for her was something she called “the stupids.”

One of the side effects of the chemo was that for nearly a year after, she could not think quickly or critically. It was almost as if something in her brain was blocking the processing of information.

She was frustrated, because as a creative and intelligent person, “the stupids” got in her way.

I was reminded of that experience recently when I came across a new study by Eldar Shafir, a psychologist, and Sendil Mullainathan, an economist. Their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, goes a long way to getting at the how and why of poverty as well as suggesting some simple but effective ways of reducing it.

What Shafir and Mullainathan discovered was that scarcity of food, income, time, sleep, security or friendship impairs people’s judgment and locks them into patterns of behaviour that compound their misery.

All of this is backed by scientific experiments in the field of human behaviour. Their conclusion is this: “When you don’t have a lot of something, you pay a lot of attention to that thing. It interferes with everything else you want to do.”

In other words, scarcity gives you a case of “the stupids.” Chronic deprivation hijacks the brain and reduces the ability to make good choices and change outcomes. Think, for a moment, how you feel after not getting a good night’s sleep. Now multiply that feeling of not sleeping well every night. It does affect your brain and certainly hinders your thinking. That is what scarcity does to us.

People who are on the edges of society experience scarcity on a daily basis. Scarcity of food, friendship, housing and so much more. It affects them in specific ways, as this study suggests. It results in bad decisions, lack of clear thinking and interferes with everything else you want to do. So what can be done? Stop blaming people for poverty or the situation in which they find themselves. Those on social assistance have said repeatedly that no one wants to be there. But if they lose an important part of their life or it becomes scarce through losing a job, marriage breakdown, domestic abuse or catastrophic health change, it should be expected that this will have a negative effect on their thinking ability.

Stop making processes complex. This is something I learned myself, recently. Our practice around our office is to ask if you need something. We can’t solve every single issue (I may be a pastor but I’m not God). We can try to meet the most important need of the moment, with as little fuss and bother as possible.

Stop saying “no” or “Thou shalt not . . .” The church has been especially good at making moral judgements about people. It’s time to stop. We need to help people from falling into temptation and offer assistance when it happens, but it’s time to suspend moral judgements of others when they don’t seem to measure up to our standards. Scripture says a lot about judging others before you judge yourself. This research on the effects of scarcity are a strong antidote to our own arrogance and judgmentalism.

Finally, recognize that there are solutions to problems and effects of scarcity. Provide a living wage. Make sure people have adequate housing and food security. Value people for being people, first and foremost, and not value them for what their work is or is not. Having or not having a job should not define us as worthy or unworthy in today’s society.

This is challenging stuff. It pushes our edges and afflicts the comfortable. It legitimizes those who would argue for enhanced supports for those on the margins. And I suspect that Jesus would say, “See? I told you the poor you would always have with you. So what are you going to do to help them?”

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound.

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