I abhor the Shannon Noll song that shares this title, which may be better translated as ‘Woe is me’. It represents everything that is wrong with our society. It is whingey and self-centred and it lacks compassion and empathy. It is ignorant and small-minded and selfish. We all know that if everyone put all their problems in a big pile and you were allowed to choose whatever problems you wanted, you would more than likely take your own back in a flash if you saw everyone else’s. So I hate the song, and I hate the attitude it reflects, which seems to be contagious and growing like a sickly grey fungus, poisoning minds and hearts and destroying what it means to be a human in a community of humans.
I will never forget the woman I saw on TV one night when she was an audience member for an episode of Q&A starring our then-PM Julia Gillard. The woman described how she and her husband had worked really hard their whole lives, sent their kids to school, paid off their house, always paid their bills on time – and yet, had never received a government handout. The woman was almost in tears. ‘Where is our reward?’ she asked. ‘So much hand work, and we’ve never gotten a cent.’
I felt like throwing something at the TV. I couldn’t believe Julia managed to keep her cool in the face of such ridiculousness. What I would have said to the woman, if I could, was this: THAT is your reward. Being employed. Living in a house you’ve paid off. Children who are educated. No debts. Never having to line up in a Centrelink office, never having to be in that system. Those are your rewards.
My mind boggles that she didn’t see this. She was an incredibly privileged woman. Sure, I don’t know the ins and outs of her life – I don’t know what struggles she’s had, because no life is perfect. But based on her question to the Prime Minister, which is all the information she thought was relevant, she got exactly what she deserved from all her hard work. And yet she wasn’t celebrating. She wasn’t even quietly content. She thought it warranted asking the actual Prime Minister for an actual reward.
People think it’s only Gen X (or is it the one after that? I can’t keep up and I’m not sure which one I am) who have this enormous sense of entitlement, but it’s not. That woman was in her forties. Today at work we got an email to the Prime Minister from an Aged Pensioner. The writer was complaining that victims of the Bali bombings were being given compensation by the government, when pensioners “like me, who have done so much for this country, can barely put food on the table”. The letter writer did not provide details of their sizeable contribution to Australian society and felt the need to point out that at least the bombing victims “could afford a holiday”. You couldn’t make this up. And yes, they will receive a response. Any nut job with an email address can now write to the Prime Minister about their terrible life and how much worse it is than that other poor bastard, and get a response.
This either/or mentality – that by giving something to someone we are necessarily taking something away from someone else – seems pervasive, and so dangerous. It drives some of the debate about marriage equality – that somehow marriage equality will make existing marriages less equal. (It goes without saying that I do not understand this argument, and that in a world where cousins, serial killers on death row and people who have known each other a matter of hours can get married, it is bullshit.) There is enough in this world – of food, money and love – to go around. We’re not always good at figuring out how to make it go around, but there is enough. If you as an individual don’t have enough, it’s not because the person next door has too much. The problem is bigger than you, and bigger than them. Taking it away from them will not lead to you having more.
The lack of empathy also astounds me, as does the lack of awareness as to how lucky most of us really are. I know the Age Pension isn’t much money. I know it’s hard work to pay off your mortgage and educate your kids and keep it all afloat. I know it’s easy to look at the single parent down the road who doesn’t have a job but doesn’t seem to live on the actual poverty line, and feel hard done by as you slog away in your paid job for what seems like not much more money. But I don’t understand why people don’t consider themselves blessed to live in a country that has an Age Pension that they are eligible to receive. I don’t know why they think that if someone can afford to go on a holiday to Bali, they deserve zero assistance if they encounter a traumatic event while they’re there. I don’t know why you wouldn’t look back at your life of being employed and educated and with a roof over your head, and think, ‘It’s not always been easy but I’m so lucky.’ I don’t know why you would want to be subject to the whims of the government, which can change or take away your single parent payment any time they want, can demand the most personal of details be revealed and scrutinised, and will certainly not give you any kind of career trajectory, pay rises or simple self esteem like you would get in an actual job.
Say what you want about Oprah, and many do, and her sentimentality and other traits it’s easy to be cynical about. But the idea she used to advocate, of being grateful, of even going so far as to keep a gratitude journal – in which you write every day one thing you are grateful for – seems more and more like a healthy habit to get into. I would hate to become so bitter about my ordinary life that I despised other people for their worse ones. I would hate to forget that I’m blessed. It seems to me you lose something important of yourself, when you are angry at the world, when you feel owed something, when you resent so much what others have.
So – notes to self. Get a gratitude journal. Take a moment, occasionally, to reflect on your less-than-perfect life and see all its perfections. Think back to any periods of unemployment in your life and how much it totally sucked, once the novelty of sleep-ins and daytime trips to the pub wore off. Revel in your physical abilities, your beating heart, your working limbs, your breathing lungs. Remember the best parties, kisses, jokes, burgers, sunsets. Give of yourself in a way to make the world a better place, even if it seems so small as to be insignificant: it will matter. And if all that fails, email the Prime Minister.
Edit to add: Here is a slightly different take on a “What about me” essay that’s been in the news in the States the past few weeks. http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/12/poverty_thoughts_viral_essay_how_do_we_really_define_the_meaning_of_poor.html