I hear this bromide a lot these days: “Those less fortunate than ourselves.” I just sort of let it roll off my back without thinking. Upon closer inspection though, I think this seemingly harmless phrase carries some rather nasty implications:
1. All “good fortune” has to do with money.
2. The rest of us are MORE fortunate than those referred to in the phrase.
3. There is no remedy for being “less fortunate” other than “good fortune.”
4. The primary reason we are better off financially than those less fortunate is based primarily on pure happenstance, including the situation we were born into.
5. You are a member of “those less fortunate” through no fault of your own.
6. If you busted ass to improve your lot in life you’re an odd statistical outlier.
7. It patronizes the poor and further entrenches them in their poverty.
Am I overly sensitive to cringe every time I hear this expression? — P.T.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it, to watch a figure of speech getting politicized when that figure of speech might otherwise have its origins in a lovely sentiment.
You’re right, of course. The word “fortune” has to do with happenstance. Capricious, blind luck. Chance. “Fortune” comes with an added layer of meaning, too. That being more than a hint of the idea that someone or something is in charge of dispensing fortune with something like an intention. Chance is a mathematical probability. But fortune is more the doing of the gods.
Since forever, the suffering of the poor has always been keenly related to the responsibilities of the rich. Consider the pity saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” But there it is again: “given.” Given is not the same as earned.
No, you’re not being overly sensitive. In my opinion, it has never been harder to get past the politics of language so that we can have meaningful, edifying, crucial dialogues, which is the only way to confront what is really going on. What’s the truth? What constitutes authentic moral responsibility?
At its best, the saying “those less fortunate than ourselves” was meant to convey two things. We mean at once to convey empathy for those who suffer and some sense of appreciation and gratitude if we do not. The latter conveyance is the antidote for temptations to entitlement. The former an antidote for the temptation to condemnation and “let them eat cake.”
But, when the saying is conscripted by politics, it begins to work against us. To entrench ideas that range from incomplete to unhelpful to part of the problem all the way to just plain not true.
Consider this: One of the unwitting consequences of The Age of Reason is a tribe of “Left Brainers.” And Left Brainers struggle with paradox. Some of them just don’t “do” paradox. This is a problem, because I’m convinced that only paradox can embrace the wholeness of the truth and the human experience.
Here’s the paradox: Life is at once replete with “chance” (that which we do not control) AND moral responsibility (that which we can and should be expected to control).
I didn’t decide to be born in the United States. I just was. I didn’t decide to have a body with insufficient athletic ability to garner an NBA contract. I just do. On the other hand, it’s right to insist I take moral responsibility for the unearned, unmerited liberties I enjoy because of the sacrifices the early colonials laid at the feet of liberty and freedom. And the body I do have deserves exercise and good nutrition. Rightly my responsibility and mine alone.
Capitalism contains both chance and moral responsibility. Why isn’t that obvious? If I bet on orange juice futures with my life savings and the orange crop fails, I’ll be the victim of bad luck. Who knew? On the other hand, I am responsible for the risks I take in capitalism. No one made me invest. I took the risk.
It is possible to do everything right toward The American Dream and sometimes still have a nightmare.
And I ask you (and anybody else who will listen): Gather everyone you see with a sign that says “Will work for food” and see if you can convince yourself these people wield this scrap of cardboard solely because they have been unlucky in capitalism. Answer: not even close. Anomalies notwithstanding, the poor participate in their own poverty. And I would argue the poor cannot be ultimately aided without a fearless moral inventory of this participation.
Both/and. The paradox. Neither the poor nor the rich deserve to be vilified because they are poor or rich. That’s ridiculous. Humility and responsibility are best held together by paradox.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.