“I pity a man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth will starve in the process.”
Benjamin Harrison,23rd President of The United States
I was trying to find some funny quotes on pity the other day to make a comment on a friends Facebook page when I came across this quote from Benjamin Harrison. It immediately made me think of the principles of Fair Trade and the journey I have been on over the past 2 years. It got me thinking about the different ways we treat people and how that treatment may differ based on two categories: people we see and people we don’t.
I’m sure most of us have seen people in desperation, people begging for assistance. In my community they can be seen on a bench outside the local Safeway playing some type of musical instrument with an open container at their feet that has a few coins or bills in it. They are frequently seen at the stop light at the exit of the Wal Mart & Home Depot shopping center with a myriad of different signs all requesting bits of others excess.
We all have different ways of reacting to this encounter. Some completely ignore. Others strive to make eye contact and at least offer a friendly hello while others rationalize that if they “give” the person may use it for something destructive like drugs or alcohol. Some may say, “If the light is red, then I’ll give some change if I have it. But if it is green, then I can’t hold up traffic, so I’ll give a nod that says ‘Id like to help but I have to keep moving right now’.” One thing I feel is certain; that when we see someone in desperation begging, regardless of whether we can/will assist or not, it still makes us think about what it would be like if that were us. And there again is another contrast. For some,we whisper the prayer, “Thank God I’m not like them.” For others of us we think of what it would be like to be in that persons shoes and how we would feel when people pass us by.
I can write about this because I have said, felt and thought each of these different responses. I’ve had to wrestle with the question of how I should respond to the request for my time, energy and resources. It is a valid struggle and one I feel we must engage in. We must know how we will respond and have reasons for doing so. Another equally valid and important struggle is whether or not to apply this same rational for responding to the people I “see” in desperation to the people I do not see but “know” are in desperation. And this is where the aforementioned quote is applicable.
What if, in my pursuit to be frugal and economical, another is harmed to accommodate my request? I am sure that most would find this to be unacceptable. However, we most often do not choose to apply the same rational of how we should “treat others” to the people we do not see. But, attached and associated with everything we see IS a person. Someone is behind making, producing, growing and delivering everything you and I consume. And how they are treated and what accommodations they are afforded should matter to me before I take ownership of something.
Benjamin Harrison basically said that he pitied a man, who in pursuit of frugality, caused another person to starve, or in other words, to suffer greatly in some way. To pity means to have “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering,distress, or misfortune of another, often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy.” ¹ To me this is saying that Benjamin Harrison felt sorrow for the frugal man because of the suffering and distress he was causing another person, not because he was trying to be frugal. And also that it led him to show mercy to the one suffering and maybe to show mercy to the one causing suffering as well by providing an alternative.
So where does this leave us? I feel that there are many people who are beginning to associate the things they have with the people who make it possible for us to have them. It is equally important to treat people seen and people unseen with dignity and respect. If a thing cannot be had without another suffering to make our ownership of it possible, then it is certainly not worth having. And if this principle is important to us, we must show mercy to those suffering at the hands of others by choosing a different way than what is currently acceptable, a way that recognizes people unseen and treats them fairly. We must also show mercy to those who may cause suffering, though their actions may be due to ignorance, by compassionately urging them to consider their actions and think of people unseen.