Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Social Trap - Read This If You Want To Know About Injustice!

I think it is rather obvious that victimhood rules the planet. However, many spiritual people like to come down on people who they feel are victimizing themselves, while in reality it may be that there are great lessons to be learned from a state of victimhood. This is something that has happened to me numerous times, and that I always find frustrating. I know that my life has a purpose in that I can pinpoint things that are very wrong with many of the attitudes that govern our world. If I complain about issues in regards to feeling like a victim, it may sometimes be just that - a complaint. But I also want to raise awareness, that if we close our eyes to some of the things people do to each other in order to make them into victims, people could get away with murder. Which in fact, as things are now, they do! I can see that many people could gain from looking at their situation from a point of view that would empower them instead of disempower them. I am not advocating apathy! But Hitler existed for real and what happened then and all the time as we speak, is not a chimera. This is an article about social injustice the way I have experienced it, written for the ezine Scribespirit 2/3 2007. This is an important topic that I have had to learn about in this life. A choice? Who knows. I don't believe in coincidence and chance.
You can also skip the philosophy and go directly to the latter part, "later addition", which explains some bare facts about poverty in Finland.

It has often been said that being born in Finland is like winning the lottery. I live in Finland and I am on disability. Against my will, I have had to live off social welfare for the greater part of my life, so I feel that I'm in a position to make a few statements about money and power in this context. I want to bring out a few of my experiences at the grass root's level, but also some thoughts regarding some deeper values and virtues connected to wealth and poverty, namely those of compassion and generosity. It has been suggested, that a person's happiness is dependent on the environment they live in. The implication seems to be, that a poor person is likely to be less miserable in a poverty stricken environment than a poor person in an affluent environment. This is why I also want to address the issue of poverty in affluent countries.

Are there any virtues connected to poverty? I will present a couple of points of view of a spiritual nature before I dig into the more concrete facts. I think that most people would agree that the renunciation of worldly goods can be a sign of over strung religious sentiments where martyrdom is seen as a virtuous stance with the potential of removing sinful behavior. A counter reaction has emerged within New Age thinking which promotes the idea that we create our own reality and have a birth right to live in abundance. Unfortunately this kind of stance may cause an unwillingness to see and respect the suffering of the poverty stricken part of humanity. I personally agree with the new spiritualist ideas that our attitude is of crucial importance in helping us attract certain things into our lives, but this is an idea apart from moral virtues. I am thus not against the ideas that have been presented in relation to the so-called Law of Attraction (c.f. movies such as The Secret and What the Bleep do we know). What concerns me is that only very rarely do people who have it all, care much about anyone else's welfare. I think obsessing about having more money and seeing the accumulation of money as a sign of spiritual success is dangerous. Financial elitism of any kind can create more barriers between people where people might in fact gain from seeing themselves as part of a great network that is in essence One. How can we avoid the ego traps and stay real? I'm not trying to ban any contemporary spiritual beliefs. I only hope that people are aware of the deeper implications of their belief systems. What are spiritual people truly surrendering to?

Since the spiritual viewpoints are deep and complicated I hope my comments have given a little food for thought, and will leave the purely religious/spiritualist dogmas at this. I want to bring into focus the case about money in the context of our lives as human beings within the framework of society (the collective, in other words). I believe that the living conditions that are an undeniable part of reality for so many people in the Western world of today need to be addressed as a priority next to ecological pursuits and animal rescue. I think that knowing reality for what it is and understanding the problems on the collective level, is a prerequisite for transcending it. Although we need to own a healthy sense of self-preservation and look for our own happiness, I think it goes without saying that compassion and altruism cannot flourish in those who turn a blind eye to the reality and suffering of so many other fellow human beings. Maybe we are, in fact, dealing with a fundamental paradox here? Could the marriage of abundance and compassion be a solution to spiritual impoverishment? Not an easy trick to perform, I think, but then nothing of any greater value ever is, is it?

I would claim that it is virtuous to be poor if it makes you understand what life is like for other people who are poor. After all, over 90 % of the world's population is poor. On the other hand, it is probably virtuous to be wealthy if it teaches you to appreciate abundance without becoming mentally dependant on it, and if it helps you develop a truly generous frame of mind. We all have our lessons, but surely compassion and altruistic deeds are among the deepest and most important lessons of them all? I believe we are dealing with very complicated issues here. How about, for instance, trying to be compassionate of the wealthy if we are poor, and vice versa. Who can honestly say that they can do this?

It's a problem when you don't have much energy to accumulate wealth, and you get stuck in a vicious circle where you feel deprived and depressed and unable to pick yourself up onto a happier level of existence. It's also a problem if you are rich and you get cut off from the realm of the physical world the way it appears to most people in the world, and you get fixated on holding onto your money. How many people are able to sustain a good middle ground? I bet it's not very many.

Life can obviously be beautiful whether you are rich or poor. But the reality is usually that money does help to provide with a better life experience and may empower the individual with a sense of self worth, social status and independence. A poor person is likely to suffer from chronic stress due to not being able to make ends meet easily. While it is true that many of the best things in life are for free, the opportunities of enjoying these are obviously much lower if you do not have the means of paying for the various fees related to these. This could mean any number of things. How about living in a safe neighborhood, owning a car that helps you "get away from it all" every once in a while (relying on public transportation is very tiring, tedious, expensive and generally dissatisfactory), owning a pet, having money to buy plants for your garden (not everybody has a greenhouse to sow plants from seeds), paying for the ridiculously high entrance fees to museums (yes, they've gone up!), visiting social gatherings, paying for the dating services online (the prizes are outrageous!), paying for a cleaning service if you're elderly or sick, or paying for the medicines or the experts that can help relieve any physical suffering (national healthcare only provides with the means to barely keep you alive!). Many think that the elderly and handicapped get plenty of social aid. This is only true for the most severely handicapped people. The rest of us who are either old or suffer from arthritis, fibromyalgia or any other physically debilitating disease, have to make it through the day without external help. Consider also, that in Finland cheap dental care is only granted citizens born after 1954! One would think that assisting people in keeping their own teeth would be of a major concern, not to mention how dangerous it is to the heart to have bad teeth. It is ironic how much money goes into fussing with cardiac healthcare in other ways!

In most countries, living off social security (so-called "welfare", haha) means that you receive monetary help for the bare necessities only. The old fashioned mentality that depriving people as much as possible will motivate them to find work or create other means of making a living is still alive and well in today's world. New research has found, however, that this old fashioned assumption is not true at all. In fact, it is the little "extras" in life and other people's compassion and generosity that spur most people to try and better their lives. Dependence on feeble and insufficient, not always so benevolent, good-will (be it of the government or some charity), is without any doubt a very stifling and depressive predicament to find oneself in. Research has also found that it is precisely the feeling of deprivation that leads to crazy bouts of overspending. Behavior which is, of course, condemned as immature and irrational behavior by those in a more fortunate position.

For those who suffer from a chronic and hugely debilitating illness from an early age it gets even worse, since the prospect of changing the situation is bleak. In my own case the pension that I receive is of a minimum, and therefore I also have to apply for some social aid every month. Suffice to say, that the amount has not increased in 15 years although the living costs have, and that the procedures that one is put through on a constant basis are excruciatingly humiliating. Unfortunately, the social people rarely meet you with respect and understanding. One even asked me to find a little job on the side so that I could earn some extra money. I guess they don't believe that you are ill! Well... the money that I'd be allowed to earn would be minimal, and it would rob me of the social security! In practice it means that the extra money would go into medicines and electricity and not into any so-called luxury items or uplifting experiences! What do you do when you're either too old, or ill, and dependent on social welfare, and not even allowed to make any extra money in the case you could manage it physically? In fact, you do not even own the right to take a loan in order to balance up your finances, because this is seen as an income and will rob you of the social services. So what can you do? What sense of dignity can a person in this predicament maintain?

Not long ago a minister here in my home country Finland made a statement on TV saying that the beneficiaries of the social services are so well off because the social pays one's telephone bill, TV license, or alternatively a daily journal of your choice. This badly informed minister who was spreading false beliefs in the living situation of the less fortunate ones was in fact referring to the golden days of the 1980's. That was very, very long ago. Finland prides itself of being one of the 20 most affluent countries in the world. Well, I ask you, of what consequence is this when the level of affluence in a true democratic spirit is so appallingly low in the rest of the world? We all know that the governments tend to make financial cuts by reducing the social benefits so that the logistics (state loans, etc.) would look good on paper.For many, living off social security means being cut off from the external world (no TV, since licences in this country cost over 1000 US dollars per year, no computer, no telephone, no newspaper) and not even being able to enjoy the closeness and love of a pet (not counting the veterinary costs, the upkeep of one cat is at least 30 € a month. In this country nonbreed cats are not liable to insurances). This is what many in the affluent countries have to live with. This is a very real and very traumatic issue, because it is directly related to the idea that those who are not capable of making a living are second rate citizens and consequently of less value to society than those who are making a palpable contribution. All this boils down to the simple fact that a person's value is measured in money, and that authorities have the means to exert a subtle but none the less potent power over those who are less fortunate.

Later addition - more gory details: On request, I will clarify how the Finnish social system works for people on disability. If you have worked prior to your disability, you get a monthly payment that is dependent on the money that was saved for your pension. If not, then you get a very low income, the lowest being 560 € a month. On top of that, you get a couple of hundred in the form of an aid to pay your rent. For instance if your rent is low such as 400 €/month you pay about 100 € yourself out of your pension. However, if you have electric heating and/or expensive medication, you will have to go to the social services. They distract about 60 € from the minimum pension because according to their calculation you only need about 400 € to survive each month. The trouble is, this is a sum that has not changed much over the past 20 years although inflation and a radical increase in the cost of food and living has happened during this time. What is even worse is that this money is really meant only for emergency situations. It has not been intended for long term use although as far as I know unemployment money is about the same once you're long term unemployed. This means that for some odd reason, disabled people are put in the same category as people who are temporarily out of money.
If you're disabled at a young age, you have no way of creating a normal life for yourself, since the money you recieve is hardly enough to feed you, let alone feed any pets. There are only very few charities that hand out anything for free in this country - in fact the Salvation Army charges horrible amounts for their stuff. And no one will transport the things for you either. Clothes you either buy second hand (not very tempting option once you're past 40) or you start collecting debts. Ironically, you are not allowed to have a credit card because your income is too low, however post order companies willingly grant you credits since you're likely to be paying them for many years to come and they thus gain quite a bit in interest. This is basically the only way that you can acquire things such as a computer, a TV, a telephone, any other appliances for the home, furniture and of course nice looking clothes (unless you're into the bum look or happen to have a figure that works with anything you can find - being deformed myself I can tell you this is not a minor issue in some people's lives!). Now, it's obvious that many of the items listed are going to help you not get potty. We need things to do and ways of following up on stuff that's going on in the world. Yes, there is the library but it can be a long trip for some... It is one of society's finest inventions but limited, nonetheless, and also threatened to become extinct. Obviously using the library computer is not a long term solution if you really want to do things on it and spend time talking or chatting with other people. The telephone is something that even the social people expect you to have. In fact, most companies also expect you to have a computer. And now to the really upsetting part: you cannot have a TV unless you pay the licence. That is about 200 € a year. It's quite a lot of money considering you already have adsl (in my house the cheapest you get is 36 € a month) and phone bills (the cheapest deal I have is a minimum of 20 € a month), plus need to renew your equipment and appliances every once in a while as well. Not everyone has a handy/geeky husband, brother or son who takes care of such things! Forget about insurances, too.
Ok, you don't need a medical insurance in this country (not that the service you get is worth much anyway). But what about the other things (not traveller's insurance since you obviously cannot travel anywhere) - but, for instance, what happens if your house burns down because you didn't quite have the 60-100 € to pay for the home insurance? It hit me the other day and I simply could think of no other answer from the social people than: start over. This is a horryfying thought especially if you are already in debt because of wanting a reasonably decent home (some of us actually do care!). In fact, being ill is a full time job and you need to be super smart to prioritize and plan your life absolutely correctly and you can obviously have no vices whatsoever so you should basically just sit in a rocking chair, follow the spider's track on the wall, and lull yourself to sleep. Unless you have insomnia from all the worrying about money, of course.
I also want to mention that in our country, a car is definitely not considered a necessity, and it is thus something you probably won't have unless you have family that supplies that kind of thing for you. Someone who has nobody has to walk or bike. And no, the bike nor a trolley in which you can put your groceries, are not supported by the social service (my dad took pity on me and got me a trolley, and they cost 200 €!). I live about 3 km's away from the shops. Luckily the trains grant you 50% off and the bus too if the trip is more than 30 km, but it's still very expensive. My social worker wants me to move so that they wouldn't have to pay for the electric heating. She cannot get it into her head that I do not know a man or two who would pack my things and then transport them for me. Obviously, the move would be on me. The same woman thinks I should have a part time job such as teaching - basically, as far as I can see, for the very same reasons. That is, so that they wouldn't have to pay my electricity. So I, who am not fit for working, should still work so that the city can save a few bucks?
In fact, the only things supported these days are heating/electricity, and prescription medicines. Still, your social worker might ask you to pay first and then get refunded, but it can be a terrible thing if you suddenly have to get an expensive medecine at the end of the month. Once my social worker looked at my bank statement and said, oh, but you paid the 200 € with your credit card so no problem right? NO I didn't! It's a f*** bank card that usually takes the money out of your account immediately. I won't go into the details of the trouble this kind of expense could render if you have bills that need to go the same day. No pardon there! If you're into herbal medicines and such things, forget it, you can't afford it. If your pet has trouble and needs to see a veterinarian, it's on you. I have had to come up with 400 € several times because of some issue with my cats. I reckon I pay about 100 € a month for three cats, because two of them happen to be very big and eat tons. In short, there is no space for emergencies. You want to know what my reality looks like? Ok, I'll satisfy your curiousity. It is the absolute worst case scenario. And that is in a country that prides itself to be among the most affluent in the world. But sure, I have a roof over my head and stuff. Sure. I'm luckier than people in the third world country but am I lucky to live in Finland? And remember, don't try to immigrate here. They don't want more people who live off social security. It's bad for the statistics.
Let me tell you something: a couple of years ago, someone collected stories of poverty in Finland, published them and gave a free copy to all the politicians in the parliament. What is your guess - do you think anyone ever cared to read it?

Artwork: "A Matter of Priorities", handmade collage by author, all rights reserved 2008

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