A parable of relief vs. advocacy
“Relief” refers to providing for needy people’s immediate survival needs — food, shelter and clothing, direct material gifts. “Advocacy” refers to political activism, meant to change policies and laws. People and organizations who presume to serve the poor, face choices as to which one to emphasize.
The parable of the babies in the river addresses that choice. Activists love it. Desmond Tutu and others have endorsed it.
There was a village by a river. The people there were thriving. One day, someone saw a baby floating downstream in the river, flailing its arms and legs and screaming helplessly, sure to drown. The person swam out and rescued the baby.
The next day, two babies came floating down the river, and people swam out and rescued them. The next day, it was five babies. The day after that, ten babies. The day after that, twenty babies. The villagers rescued them all.
They organized teams of rescuers to watch the river day and night. Every family took in as many as five babies, to feed and clothe and care for. Soon enough, the village wasn’t thriving any more; they were pouring all their resources into rescuing and caring for these babies. But what were they to do?
Finally, someone said, “Somewhere upstream, someone is throwing all these babies in the river. Let’s go upstream and find and stop them.”
The standard interpretation
The System is unjust, and injustice causes poverty. All the resources that people of goodwill spend rescuing the needy — a tremendous portion of them could be saved, by advocating/agitating for changes to the System, to the laws and customs that create poverty to start with.
1. The hungry man
From my diary for Tuesday 2022-05-10:
This man showed up Sunday night after dark. Young, tall, thin; not carrying anything. When I first saw him, I was coming in from my last smoke break; he was in front of me. He knelt down before the front doors and folded his hands in prayer, as if that would get the automatic doors, which currently aren’t automatic, to open. I told him, “You have to open them yourself,” which he did. Once inside, at the front desk, he knelt down in prayer again before approaching the person there.
Monday, throughout the day, I saw him walking around, just walking around, constantly walking, around the block, back and forth between one corner and the other, never engaging anyone.
At about 16:00, I was at Dunkin’ Donuts (Guilford and Madison Streets) on my routine break, and he was in there sitting, drinking from a big cup of ice water. I said, “Are you hungry?” and he nodded. I pointed toward the cash register, and said, “Get what you want.” He got a muffin and some doughnuts and a soda; came to $7 and change. I wished he’d got a sandwich, but it’s not my place to dictate what he chooses.
I was so proud of myself. I shared of what little I have, with someone worse off than me. As others have been generous to me, I was generous to someone else. But it’s sure not as if I can afford to do this every day. I had done the same thing with a different hungry man a week or two ago.
From the sparse conversation we had, it’s clear he has dementia. May have blown his brains out smoking weed while in the service.
Tuesday, Tuesday. I met him inside the same Dunkin’ Donuts, at about the same time. This time, he asked me for a smoke. I gave him one. Later, after I got my coffee, I was sitting outside; he had gone off, and now came back, and asked me for another smoke. I gave him one. Then he asked, “Can you get me something to eat?” I answered, “Not right now.”
That fast, he’d become dependent on me.
Back in the day, years ago now, when I used to spend my days at the other Dunkin’ Donuts, at the Court Square Building; there was a panhandler, Ron, who used to sit out front. I’d sit and talk with him during my smoke breaks. He had a couple psychiatric diagnoses, and also an addiction.
We went on like that for I suppose a couple years, and then one day he asked me for some cash to meet a crucial need. I don’t remember what it was. Then, the next day or a couple days later, again. It got to be almost every day. One day, he left to make a run to the pharmacy to pick up his psych meds; when he got back, he said he needed $8.00 for the co-pay. A day or two later, late in the afternoon, he needed $5 bus fare to get down to Pasadena, to get some cash from his sister, and come back. It being so late in the day, I had my doubts. Found out the next day he never went down there at all; he spent the money on something else.
I came to dread seeing him.
It finally came to me to tell him,
You never had these problems until I started giving you money.
The river is life, and we’re all swimming in it — or not. Most people, and most creatures, grow up in circumstances of harmony, and so learn harmonious habits of moving one’s limbs, moving one’s emotions and decisions — in other words, learning to swim, as swimming involves harmonious movements. The swimmer meets resistance from the water itself; the current may provide additional resistance, so that the swimmer has to go against the current; but sooner or later, the swimmer gets where she or he wants to go.
A minority of people and creatures grow up in circumstances of discord; and that itself creates poverty. From their discordant circumstances, such children and adults are prone learn discordant ways of moving one’s limbs and decisions and emotions, like the babies screaming and flailing in the river; these are the folk at risk to drown. Discordant ways of spending one’s emotions, decisions and money result in the threats or facts of hunger, eviction, foreclosure, repossession, utility turn-offs, etc., from which such folk are always screaming for people of goodwill to rescue them.
In this view, no systemic change is needed, if it were even possible. The solution, instead, is to teach child babies, and adult babies, to swim.
Related: Chaos overwhelms the poor