I saw Slumdog Millionaire this weekend, coincidentally at the same time I am reading The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. Although I am only a short way into the book, it has already made a powerful impact on me.
Twist talks about her first visit to India in 1983 and the crushing poverty she saw even then. She describes the thousands of people—beggars and others—who “lived in the airport and on the edges of the roads to the airport, as well as in the streets of Bombay, on the sidewalks, in the doorways and stairwells — everywhere.” She walks through the streets of Bombay with Ramkrishna Bajaj, one of India’s leading industrialists and philanthropists, and is struck by his seeming obliviousness to the sea of people that they, literally, had to walk over. What she comes to realize is that, in order for Ramkrishna to maintain his vision and purpose of helping the poor, he had to develop a certain kind of blindness to the everyday poverty on the streets.
I understand this. Begging in India is an industry, where families often mutilate their children to increase their shock value and to bring in more money as beggars. People who give money from shock or guilt are unwittingly supporting this brutality. Even in the United States, people debate the effectiveness of giving the homeless handouts on street corners. Giving a quarter to a homeless person is seemingly harmless, but do those handouts perpetuate our homeless problem? Would your donation, however small, be better spent by giving it to the shelters and other organizations who work to break the cycle of homelessness?
With these thoughts swirling around in my head, I watched Slumdog Millionaire and saw images of the devastating poverty Twist describes in her book. Although I know Slumdog is a movie and not a documentary, it was filmed entirely in and around Mumbai, and beautifully captures the energy and despair of the slums. It is impossible to watch this film and not feel a visceral reaction to the poverty and the accompanying brutality on the screen.
But it is just a movie, after all, so it’s easy to walk away from the problem, to turn a blind eye, as Ramkrishna needs to do when walking the streets of Bombay, or as many of us need to do when we ignore a homeless person on the street corner. When viewed as a whole, the problem seems insurmountable. So, what can we do?
While reading The Soul of Money, I was reminded of Mother Teresa’s famous adage: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” Some powerful words to think about as we begin the New Year with a new administration in office. We can’t look to President Obama to solve the world’s problems, but we can help him by doing our part.