One Degree of Separation

Earlier this year on a trip to the city, I drove through inner-suburb tree-lined boulevards, marveling at the rows of sandstone and bluestone villas with their manicured gardens.  I once spent a happy few years living and working in this city.  At that time I did not consider that it was an especially opulent lifestyle.  Returning there after so much exposure to the “poor world”, my brain now perceives a universal opulence.  After visiting so many western cities last year, this acute and newfound sense accompanies me throughout the “rich world”, with the exception of my home town of Alice Springs.  Perhaps this is because the divide between rich and poor is conspicuous here.  Most of our best real estate sits near the edge of the same dry sand riverbed which accommodates our homeless and destitute.

The reality of my youth was one of oblivion to the fact that I was living an elite existence.  In this regard, the reality of my middle age has been turned on it’s head.  I have an acute gratitude now, for what I know is my extreme good fortune.  Life is not without it’s sadness and disappointments.  Thanks purely to the privileges I was born to, based solely on the place I happened to be born, all of my heartaches pale in comparison to the realities I have witnessed elsewhere.

As we drove through those shady boulevards, my companion was telling me about his regular travels both interstate and overseas, concluding that “you have to spend your money on something”.  Given my own penchant for travel I’m hardly in a position to judge, but this casual comment astonished me.  It highlighted the barefaced disparities between my rich-world and poor-world connections, isolated from each other as they are by one degree of separation.

That single degree is me.

When I blogged on 1 July about Kim, I thought that I had come to terms with his white lies and the reason for them, and that I had resolved to continue supporting him.  However, I then discovered that Samantha, whose problems are even more distressing and intolerable than Kim’s, had been sending private messages to Karen in New York.  Before I realised she would be involved in Paula’s journey to America, I told Samantha about my “friend with money” who was covering the out-of-hospital costs.  Had I known this friend’s identity would become known to Samantha as plans evolved, I would not have been so forthcoming with such information.  Samantha’s problems revolve around a terminally ill infant son not receiving the care and comfort he deserves.  The wretchedness causes Samantha intense anguish.  It is hardly surprising that she seeks comfort and solace beyond her own overcrowded and stressful world, with people who are not connected to the suffering.  Yet, after feeling burned by Kim’s manipulations, I was agitated to learn that she was fostering a relationship with my friend who she has never met.  I asked her to stop, and there was some friction between us because of it, which seems to have resolved now.

I regularly wish that I could somehow connect the two disparate factions in my life, and ponder on how to do so, convinced as I am that it would be enriching for us all.  On this occasion however, the connection which had come about through my own error in judgement felt like a violation.  Perhaps it wasn’t.  Hot on the tails of Kim’s transgression, maybe I was simply being overly paranoid?  Samantha said her reasons for talking to Karen were because they shared the experience of having had a sick son.  Who am I to refute her reasoning?  I frequently remind myself of the quote by Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, “of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor, by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed“.

During this conflict I realised I was not as comfortable about Kim’s behaviour as I initially thought.  I told him that for the time being I am not prepared to continue supporting him and wrote to Bob to let him know my decision.  Bob’s reply shows a balanced combination of kindness, generosity and common sense.
It is good you will continue to help the Khmer people and yes there are many in need of help.
It is a bit disheartening being misled and a feeling of being used. It is only the last 10 months I have not been paying the girls’ English fees, maybe Kim is meaning this period but I would not put it past Kim to stretch the truth with this also. I will continue helping  the Kim family and discuss more with Kim in person the importance of honesty, not just for my sake but for him to show his family and set a good example for his children.
I wrote after your last email and I have been waiting for a reply, I still have not heard from him.  I told him how upset you were when you talked to me. I told Kim it was not good to tell Helen you have no money for rent and food and not say that I pay rent and help every month too. I let him know I am sad with all of this also.
I will pull back a little until I talk in person with Kim. I don’t want his wife and kids to miss out because of Kim’s misleading antics to get more money.  I do not want his daughters to think this is an ok way to act also. It is hard and frustrating for me sometimes with all of this.

That final sentence speaks volumes to me.  In a million years I would not want the problems of someone born poverty-stricken in an impoverished nation, which cannot compare to the so-called FWPs that we in the rich world worry over.  Yet, for those of us who want to make a difference to the inequality we see, as well as the personal enrichment that we experience there are a unique set of issues we must learn to navigate.  Thankfully there are people such as Dr Cham, Win and Chom, with local insight and a lack of self interest, who can act as mediators and decoders in this confusing, imbalanced, unfamiliar and problematic territory.  With the potential for exploitation, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I have often heard people lament that they do not give to charity “because you cannot trust what they will do with your money”.  But solutions do exist which are always unique and local, requiring the establishment of solid, trusting and respectful relationships.  There are many reputable organisations and individuals doing good work in places like Timor Leste and Cambodia, who are based in-country and have built relationships to ensure that what they do will have an impact.  With modern day communications we are all only one degree of separation from finding a way to contribute.

One thought on “One Degree of Separation

  1. The whole situation saddens me. Knowing the extreme need in both of these cases. Not unusual I know, but I am frequently reminded of the wisdom of someone who was very close to us. She would say, “we can only do what we know is the right thing & can’t be responsible for the actions of others” I think our idea of morality might be difficult to uphold if you are struggling to feed & care for a family in those circumstances.


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