Saturday, April 1, 2017

Wealth and Poverty, Guilt and Rationalization

"I remember one young woman whom I knew in college years. She had inherited ten million dollars at the age of twenty-one. Now, at twenty-two, she worked in Roxbury with some of the most badly battered children in the city. It struck her often as remarkably unfair that she, her brothers and two sisters, through the accident of birth, should have, each one, ten million dollars to protect their lives and to assure the safety of their children, and their children's children, too. It seemed unfair because she saw before her, every day, so many kids who were in every way the equals of her brothers and her sisters and herself; yet she knew very well these kids would, only by infrequent miracle, be able to break out of the entrapment of slum schools, parent despair, poor health, poor nutrition, crumbling plaster and the rest. The only way she might in later years know any of these kids would be if they were to become her servants, butlers, elevator boys or other kinds of menial laborers. The year in Roxbury hit her so hard that it grew into an ideal for her to go back home to her own family "place," almost a private village really, with two hundred acres of uninterrupted forest, fields and pastures for the horses, even cottages for "help." At home, as would not be unusual in cases of that kind, the servants all were black.

"Each time, then, that she went home, - for instance, at Thanksgiving, Christmas or some other holiday - she found it agonizing to sit at the dinner table and digest her food. She began to vomit secretly upstairs, or spit out food into her handkerchief or napkin, hoping in this manner that her father would not see. Her father did see, of course, and spoke about it with his wife, then with his daughter too. Being concerned about the danger to her health, he made arrangements for her to begin to see a psychoanalyst in Boston. She did so, and in fact spent several years in therapy. Out of this treatment, which had been provoked directly by her devastation at the sight of so much poverty and pain, she gained at length a more relaxed and reasoned skill to reconcile the differences between her own life and the lives of those poor children whom she had begun to know. Simultaneously she learned, as well, to reconcile the differences between her own intense convictions and that style of life which, as she knew, lay waiting for her. Her hesitation and her gnawing sense of guilt at last abated somewhat: never entirely, but enough so that she could go home from time to time, accept the luxury of horses, servants and the rest, and summon up a kind of 'realistic' will to smooth away the inconsistencies. At length she married an appropriate young man and traveled, little by little, out of the orbit of her ethical upheaval. She settled down at last into a normal, quiet and unturbulent routine, learned how to keep that residue of guilt within control, and did not need to vomit after supper.

"It would not make sense, from any 'normal' point of view, to say that she had just been cheated out of something decent and profound when she learned how to live in luxury without a sense of nausea, and to eat well and accept the services of family servants without guilt. I would not try to say that she was 'better off' when she was throwing up her food. Yet I would wonder if there was not something wrong, in toto, looking back, in all that had just taken place. Expensive medical treatment, denied to all but very few, enabled her at last to share without a sense of guilt in use of just such wealth as made that treatment possible. Ironically, it also helped ease her back into a style of life in which she would be less and less exposed to the conditions that inspired her original upheaval. A vulnerable conscience, having been explained and 'understood' at last into a kind of quiet and serene capitulation, no longer trouble her now at twenty-eight as it had done at twenty-two. She became, in terms of the society, a 'better adjusted person,' able to leave at peace with the idea of an imbalance of advantage that once, in an earlier time, had seemed to her to be intolerable. . . . psychiatric exculpation on this scale would have been of great assistance to large numbers of those troubled and uneasy bureaucrats who were so necessary to the German leaders in the Second World War. . . ."

-----Jonathan Kozol, The Night Is Dark And I Am Far From Home, pps. 132-4

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

this was not an "april fool" item!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this one.