Poverty and Suicide Are Not Natural or Inevitable

The pro-plague protests have made it to my area, and I’m more than a little frustrated. People keep pitting the devastation of a novel virus against the devastation of economic policies and social conditions that humans have chosen, as if those choices and their effects were completely out of our control.

Yes, it is really horrible that people have been laid off or sent home without pay and that there’s little to no social safety net for them. That was horrible before COVID-19 existed, and will continue to be horrible after it’s wiped out, if that ever happens. But a capitalist society that’s set up to funnel money toward its richest members isn’t some unstoppable force of nature. There is no reason, except for a lack of political will, that we can’t do what other countries are doing and send people a check every single month they’re home.

For that matter, if people making money without working just horrifies you, there are dozens of things that a functional government could pay people to do that would help us get through this pandemic. No-contact grocery, toiletry, and prescription delivery to high-risk people. Sewing face masks. Manufacturing PPE, ventilators, and test kits. Phone calls to isolated people to check in on them and give them at least some social contact. Building projects to allow schools to employ some level of social distancing when they reopen. Massive food reclamation efforts to distribute all that food that farmers are throwing away because they don’t have a market for it. Throw massive grants at crisis services of every sort. Create some kind of partnerships with hotels and domestic violence and homeless shelters where the hotels, which have severely reduced business right now, get paid to safely house people who would otherwise have no place to go. Lots of different jobs at lots of different skill levels could be created, if that was something we chose to focus on.

Also, let’s talk about suicide. Social isolation is a huge risk factor for suicide, absolutely. Bad financial circumstances, also a massive risk factor. At the same time, mental health is complex. People who are going through difficult shit, whatever form that difficult shit takes, deserve better than to be trotted out when you can use the idea of protecting them to promote a cause, and then ignored when they need actual substantive help.

I have heard of people who died by suicide after losing their business due to the lockdown, and I don’t want to minimize in any way how tragic that is. Without knowing the individual’s situation, I can’t say what they would have needed to keep going. But if the loss of the business was the trigger, certainly having some of those forgivable loans made available to actual small businesses could have helped. Not knowing what their business was, I don’t know if they could have temporarily converted to doing something toward fighting the pandemic, if the money and support had been there, but some of the businesses that people have lost most likely could have. And if their customer base had access to enough of a stimulus, they might have been able to buy whatever products or services the businesses could still offer, or buy gift certificates.

And, again, if losing a job or a business didn’t also result in not having food or a place to sleep, it would still be a major blow, but not to every area of a person’s life at once. It’s a lot easier to envision where to go next when you’re not staring eviction or starvation in the face. Would it have still been a cause for suicide for an individual I don’t know, who I heard about from someone I used to work with? No possible way to say. Would it be a cause for suicide for *fewer* people than it is in our bullshit capitalist system? I’d bet money on it.

When we treat political choices as inevitable, we get locked into a binary way of thinking that pits hurting groups of people against each other. What if we could all be on the same team, the team that’s trying to prevent as much human suffering as possible?

When Helping Hurts – Part 1, Start with the Positive

I’m volunteering for a group that provides emergency shelter for homeless people in our county during the fall and winter. It’s church-based, which feels a bit weird for this Exvangelical Quaker.  Matt and I are one of the few people in the group who aren’t part of a church that hosts people for a week as part of the program.  (Our meetinghouse is in the next county, although they used to work with a similar program there.)

I’m on the public outreach committee, which is tasked with developing and maintaining our relationships with the churches that provide the space and people-power that makes this actually work. There are a few churches who used to participate but no longer do, for various reasons.

A couple churches don’t participate because they follow the When Helping Hurts model for trying to alleviate poverty, and they don’t feel that the emergency shelter program is in keeping with that.  I swallowed my initial response of, “Do they not remember that this program started because someone died of exposure? What definition of ‘help’ lets that continue?” and decided to tackle this the way I tackle every problem. I did the assigned reading.

Now that I’ve read When Helping Hurts, I can see the differences between their model and the program I’m involved with.  And it’s a huge mix of things we really ought to be doing and things I think are misguided on the part of the authors.

My Kindle version of the book is full of highlights, about a 50/50 mix between “Yes, this!” and “WTF, no!”

So, of course, I’m going to blog about it. In this post, I’ll start with the positive, the things I really liked about the book.

The first is actually just that – start with the positive. Because people in poverty have had their self-esteem thoroughly beaten down and treated like they have nothing of value to offer, the authors argue that it’s important to focus on what gifts and talents they have, rather than what they lack. Not only does this restore people’s dignity, but it’s also an essential first step in finding ways for them to improve their lives that they can take ownership of.

I really like this, because most middle and upper middle class people don’t appreciate how much closer they are to homelessness than they are to being a millionaire. People get really invested in the Just World Fallacy and blame poor people for their misfortune. And certainly a lot of poor people absorb that ever-present messaging.  Focusing on the skills and assets people do have can help build up their self-esteem and self-confidence and remind more fortunate volunteers trying to help them that they really are equals.

The book also focuses a lot on avoiding blaming, judging, or assuming that you know someone’s needs and situation better than they do.  This tracks a lot with my experience as a crisis counselor, and I really appreciated it. They come right out and state “Poor people are often at the mercy of systems created by the powerful,” and they explicitly acknowledge the effects of both historic and present racism.

In addition to not blaming people for systemic issues that they can’t control, the book also focuses on respecting their knowledge and experience.  They talk about a blueprint approach, where a solution is created without any input from the people affected, and contrast it with a participatory approach:

…the blueprint approach implicitly communicates, ‘I, the outsider, am superior; you are inferior; I am here to fix you.’ A participatory approach, in contrast, asks the poor at each step in the process, ‘What do you think?’ and then really values the answers that are given. The very fact that the question is being asked is a powerful statement that says, ‘I believe you have value, knowledge, and insights. You know things about your situation that I do not know. Please share some of your insights with me. Let us learn together.

All of this is fantastic. Meeting people as equals who understand their situation better than you probably do. Finding out their needs and obstacles and including them in the problem-solving process, rather than assuming that you know best.  And being very clear that systemic racism is responsible for a lot of poverty.

But, even with all this positive stuff, I also have some issues with the book’s premises.  Which I’ll get to in a future post, probably several future posts.

Some Thoughts on Guns

I grew up around guns.  My dad was very, *very* into hunting, and I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten every animal that it’s legal to shoot in the state of Pennsylvania.  (Favorites are grouse and venison.)

In the rural PA county where I grew up, everybody was very into hunting.  The neighbor who babysat my brother and me had a living room decorated with buck heads.  We got not one but *two* school holidays for deer season, and hunter safety was a required part of the sixth grade curriculum. (I passed with flying colors, and I can still tell you the *one* question I got wrong and why I feel it was worded confusingly, not that I was obsessive about grades, tests, or *being right.* No, not at all.)

Had I been interested in hunting, my dad would have happily taken me, but I didn’t have it in me to shoot an animal, so I left that to him and my brother.

Dad took us shooting a few times, mostly plinking pop cans with 22s.  I fired his 12-gauge exactly once. It was loud, and it kicked a lot, and I wasn’t a fan.  But I fondly remember shooting in the woods, and I still have that 22.  I shot it yesterday, for the first time in over a decade.

I’ve gotten together with a group of left-leaning folks who put together a shooting club.  Partly to have people to shoot with for fun and community building and partly for self-defense in case the shit hits the fan more than it has already.

I get a reputation on Facebook as being “anti-gun,” but that’s not true.  I try to be *realistic* about guns.  For the vast majority of people, carrying in the grocery store or on the way to work doesn’t make them or the people around them safer.  But it does give them the ability to make irrevocable decisions if they’re angry, scared, or frustrated. It also gives them *countless* opportunities to accidentally injure or kill themselves or someone else.

“Responsible gun owners” who are fans of the second amendment are quick to tell me that it’s super easy and simple to carry safely, and only really stupid or careless people ever shoot themselves while carrying or get shot by their toddlers who had access to their guns.

That may well be the case, but people are making those stupid mistakes *pretty much constantly.* (Well Regulated Militia on Twitter has piles of examples.) And people, in general, wildly overestimate their own competence. If you’re not great at something, you lack the very skills needed to *recognize* that you’re bad at it. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In terms of gun safety, this means that the person who touts themselves as a responsible gun owner might be someone who’s meticulously careful and who could teach (or has taught) gun safety courses.  Or they could be the dude who shot himself at a Bojangles while tying his shoes.

The Dunning-Kruger effect makes personal self-defense decisions complicated, because whether a gun makes you safer or less safe depends *a lot* on your ability to store and handle that gun in a safe manner.  Statistically, you’re more likely to have your own gun used against you or someone in your family than to successfully defend yourself against an intruder. Particularly when you add in *all* the ways that can happen: domestic violence, improper storage or handling, and suicide, in addition to the possibility of an intruder getting your gun away from you.

Obviously, individual factors come into play.  If you shoot competitively and are being stalked by your violent ex, your calculations are going to be very different than if you’ve never shot a gun, live in a safe neighborhood, and have a toddler.

But I’ve seen plenty of gun owners argue as if the competitive shooter with a violent stalker is the *norm* and folks like the drunk cop who shot himself at a country club are outliers who shouldn’t even be considered in studies.  And yet, up until the flagrantly stupid thing happened, those people would have considered themselves responsible gun owners too.

Well-Regulated Militia features stories of people *who should really know better* doing dumb things with guns.  All the time.  Cops. Gun dealers. If it’s “so simple and easy” to be safe with a gun, an awful lot of these people shouldn’t have them.

Not to mention just flat out committing murder. Shooting someone because they thought they looked suspicious. Shooting someone in an argument.

And between the Dunning-Kruger effect and wanting to think of ourselves as good people, nobody thinks they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot until they’ve done it.  No one thinks they’re going to murder someone in anger until they’ve been that angry, with a weapon close at hand, and it turns out that they have.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m convinced that the people arguing for more guns aren’t taking the responsibility of gun ownership nearly seriously enough.

National Black Dog Day

Twitter informs me that it’s National Black Dog Day!

So, here’s a handy list of ways to celebrate:

  • If you have a black dog, give them extra scritches and extra treats. (If your black dog is a metaphor for mental illness rather than an actual dog, taking good care of yourself counts as a treat.)
  • If you don’t have a black dog, visit an animal shelter and pet one.
  • If your life is incomplete without a dog, consider adopting a black one.  They get overlooked at shelters and are more likely to be euthanized.
  • If your life (and bed) have all the dogs they can accommodate, you can still look at all the adorable black dog pictures on the hashtag.

Still Hanging in There

Trigger warning for pet illness and death

This past few weeks has been profoundly awful. Right on the heels of the relative’s medical emergency that I mentioned in my last post, we lost not one, but two, pets to serious illness.

My cat Thomas was 21 years old, which is an exceptional lifespan for a cat. (That’s not nearly as comforting as you’d think, now that he’s gone.)  He was at the vet only a couple weeks before, and everything checked out fine.  Then, one day, I was working at home, and he was meowing a lot.  He had always had a very tiny meow for a large cat, but this sounded particularly pitiful, like something was wrong. He was standing on the chest freezer, where we feed him and our other cat Haley.  (Sassy had her own spot on the bookshelf, because she got meds daily with her food.)

He had food, so I gave him water.  I noticed he was wet, which freaked me out a bit.  I made sure it wasn’t blood, and it didn’t smell like urine. (In hindsight, he had probably laid down in a wet spot on the floor.) I was worried enough that I asked Matt to come home and check on him.  Matt got him to the vet, and we found out that he had a mass in his bladder and his kidney numbers were off the charts. It was likely cancer, but they couldn’t be sure without more tests, which often don’t produce clear results.  Even if it was a bacterial infection, the prognosis wasn’t good.  So, we took him home and tried to spoil him rotten for a couple days prior to the euthanasia appointment. He wasn’t eating.  Initially, he liked water with tuna in it, but he soon lost interest in that too.  It was pretty apparent that he was done.

I’ve had Thomas for 13 years, so this was incredibly hard.

Meanwhile, Sassy’s kidney issues had gotten worse, and we started her on a kidney diet. Her thyroid numbers were also a bit wonky, and we were trying to get that correctly medicated. Last Thursday, we had her at the vet for bloodwork, and she went downhill so rapidly that they first wanted to keep her overnight for observation and IV fluids, and then didn’t think she’d make it through the night.  We didn’t want her to suffer, and we didn’t want her to die alone, so we made the awful decision to euthanize her.

These were the second and third time I’ve had to do this with a pet. The first was in some ways easier because we found out shortly after we started fostering Luna, an elderly beagle, that she had a heart condition that would eventually be terminal.  So, we quickly shifted gears from fostering in order to find her a forever home, to puppy hospice. She had several good years with us. Thanks to excellent care from a veterinary cardiologist, her heart condition stayed stable for some time. Unfortunately, when she developed cancer, the heart condition meant she wasn’t a candidate for surgery.

With Luna, our goal was always to give her as much good time as we could. I won’t pretend I didn’t get attached, because of course I did.  And I sobbed inconsolably at that final vet appointment. But there was such a long time when we knew we’d have to say goodbye soon.

With Thomas, I knew his age meant that we wouldn’t likely have him much longer, but he was in good health for so long, and the illness came on so quickly. It was a complete shock, totally out of nowhere.

With Sassy, we knew she wasn’t in great shape, but we were treating her as best we could, and the vet was taking care of her.  Again, things seemed generally stable until there was a sudden, rapid decline.

I don’t have any real point to this story, except that cancer sucks, age and mortality suck, and you should probably go hug the people you care about, and the animals you care about if they’re the sort of animals that like hugs, substituting scritches or belly rubs as appropriate.

Food and Diabetes, or, People are Weird

A relative of mine had a recent health scare, and it turns out he has diabetes. Now that he knows about it and is treating it, he’s doing much better, thankfully.

One of the things that struck me when people asked what had happened or how he was doing was how quick people were to insert their own assumptions about food and health. One of his coworkers swung by my workplace to drop off a get-well card, and made comments about how he would have to start a whole new way of eating. Um, maybe? I don’t actually live with him so I’m not aware of what his diet was like before, and also I just don’t know what to say to that.

Like, yes, diabetes is influenced by both diet and genetics. Someone with a genetic predisposition who eats one way is more likely to get it, and sooner, than someone with that same genetic predisposition who eats differently. But that’s a far cry from saying that every diabetic person on the planet “did it to themselves” or from knowing that a newly diagnosed diabetic needs to make drastic dietary changes, without even knowing how they were eating to begin with.

Of course, it goes back to that just world fallacy that undergirds so much prejudice. If a health problem is the patient’s fault, then other people don’t have to worry that it will happen to them. Even if it does happen to you, there’s a weird comfort in taking the blame on yourself, because if you caused it, then there’s a chance you can fix it. On the other hand, if the cause is that your number came up in the genetic lottery, and your prize was a shiny new chronic illness, that feels a lot scarier, and a lot less hopeful.

I realized how strongly it was affecting me when I found myself feeling scared of eating anything carb-heavy. The diabetic relative is an in-law, not a blood relative, so their having diabetes has no bearing on how likely I am to end up with it, but it reminded me of the history of diabetes in my own family tree.

But that fear is counterproductive. Agonizing over every bite of food I put in my mouth might reduce my carb intake, therefore reducing my blood sugar a bit.  Or, it might ramp it up, because that fight or flight response prompts your body to make stored energy–fat and glucose–available for use. That’s super useful if you’re being chased by a tiger, but less useful for fears you can’t physically run away from, like worries about food and chronic illness. Between the lack of an actual tiger to run away from, a little black yippy dog of anxiety who was already prone to excess worry about being attacked by tigers, and a metabolism that’s already a little dodgy in terms of handling sugar, the overall effect of the stress might be worse for my blood sugar than the “evil” carby food that stress was trying to protect me from.

So, I remind myself that the only time I should be this worried about a single instance of eating or preparing food is when I’m doing home canning.  (Clean everything and follow the USDA directions, because botulism will kill you dead.) A donut, by contrast, will not kill me dead. A donut every day might increase my chance of ending up with diabetes, or mean that I get it sooner than I otherwise would. But even at that, it would depend on everything else I was eating that day.  Did I eat the donut at the end of a meal with protein and fat in it?  Did I eat the donut and then go for a half-hour bike ride?

I’m trying to exercise more, in ways that are fun and sustainable. I’m trying to avoid stand-alone carby snacks. This isn’t really a hardship, because I’d rather have fruit and cheese than a handful of potato chips. And I’m trying to manage my own anxiety by not letting other people’s worries about food and mortality into my brain.

The Just World Fallacy and the Joy of Feeling Superior

One of the things that struck me recently about both fat hate and homophobia is that they seem really rooted in the need to have someone to feel superior to.

A friend posted about the recent UMC decision to move in a more anti-gay/anti-trans direction, and how disappointing it was, and a mutual acquaintance felt the need to crow about how happy he was about the decision and how great it was that the UMC was being faithful to the Bible and not being fooled by “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who want to water down the holy text.  (I didn’t ask him his feelings on mixed fabrics, oaths taken in court, or lending money at interest.)

Fred Clark, at Slacktivist, has posted extensively on this phenomenon, where people feel better about themselves by imagining a horrible enemy to compare themselves to. Fred refers to it as “Satanic Baby Killers,” which covers the satanic panic of the 80s, anti-abortion hysteria, and any number of other attempts to create an evil “Other” to feel superior to. As you’d expect, the individual gloating about gay people being thrown out of ministry also enjoys spreading made-up stories about Democrats supporting infanticide. Because, Satanic baby killers.

It’s terribly convenient to have a comically evil enemy to oppose and be offended by, because it makes you a paragon of virtue by comparison, even if you’re not terribly virtuous.

A lot of fat hate seems to work the same way. Someone is fortunate enough to have the culturally favored body type, but admitting that that’s largely due to chance doesn’t really give them the opportunity to feel superior to other people. So, they stroll around both the internet and the physical world, randomly yelling at anyone who dares to exist while fat about how horrible they are.

So, where does the Just World Fallacy fit into this?  Well, if you admit that body types and sexual orientations aren’t chosen or the result of sin, then you have to acknowledge that the way our culture treats fat people and LGB people is profoundly unfair. And, if there’s no fairness, then that capricious mistreatment could happen to you, too.  *But* if you pretend that you have nobly and morally taken good care of your body and avoided the temptation to lust after members of your own sex (ignoring that it wasn’t very tempting for you, being straight and all), then you can rest assured that bad things will happen only to those evil people over there, and not to your virtuous self.