Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm but the harm does not interest them. -T.S. Eliot, poet (1888-1965)
A new book, ‘Scarcity,’ details groundbreaking research on what poverty does to the mind:
Worrying about money when it is tight captures our brains. It reduces our cognitive capacity — especially our abstract intelligence, which we use for problem-solving. It also reduces our executive control, which governs planning, impulses and willpower. The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself. Your natural capability doesn’t decrease when you experience scarcity. But less of that capacity is available for use. If you put a middle-class person into a situation of scarcity, she will behave like a poor person.
The vampiric effects of scarcity extend to both time and money; people who are chronically short of time tend to spend it putting out one fire after another, rather than following a long-range plan; people who are dieting spend an inordinate amount of mental energy thinking about food. Chronic pain can have a similar effect, creating a scarcity of energy and mental attention which impoverishes your world.
But that would be the predictable thing to discuss. What I really want to talk about are the corrosive effects of blame.
Assuming that the poor make bad decisions because they’re lazy or stupid makes us feel comfortably superior; it reinforces our ‘just-world’ viewpoint, a bias in thinking and perception that assumes the world is just, and that bad things don’t happen to good people. It creates a distance between ourselves and the things we fear, and gives us the illusion of control over our circumstances.
It’s also incredibly cruel.
This habit of blame often shows itself in how we treat cancer patients, the obese, the mentally ill and people with HIV. In addition to dealing with the disease itself, patients are saddled with the burden of answering judgmental questions like, “Did you smoke? What are your eating habits?”
Not surprisingly, these sorts of lines of questioning can exacerbate the emotional roller coaster of cancer treatment. A recent study found that at least one-third of men with colon cancer experienced some degree of stigma or self-blame related to their malignancy. That group appeared to be more vulnerable to depression as well, the researchers found.
Even if we’re not going around blaming other people for their problems, we often do it to ourselves. Self-blame and self-punishment can be used as a kind of talisman against abuse from others, as well as an attempt to motivate change: “see, look here, I’m beating myself up so that you don’t have to.”
But self-abuse alienates us from ourselves and from others, just when we need kindness and support. It can even give instructions to the subconscious mind which are diametrically opposed to what we want and need. “I’m a lazy, worthless, greedy slob. Might as well die now.”
I’m not even going to ask if you’ve done this, because you’re human. I will ask you to consider, however, that there is a vast difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is of the devil. Responsibility is the opposite.
(This last link will take you to Pretty Lady’s radical ranting upon the subject. Click at your own risk.)