Poverty Traps

On measuring our successes

It happens in homes, in our relationships and our jobs, in learning, and even in innovation (as 'technical debt'): the sense of being trapped by circumstances.

Many have felt themselves in a situation of hopelessness, of not having time to claw their way out of survival mode, and get their head above water. Often conflicting interests stack up to trap you in indecision, and it's when you are at your most vulnerable that others tend to attack rather than help. (Have you ever lost a wallet or identity card? Suddenly you become a suspicious person, dependent on the help of others, and you see life from the other side of the poverty gap.)

A few times in my life, I've been in a position to help someone stuck in some kind of a poverty trap, by giving them a one-time donation rather than dropping pennies into a cup and hoping they would go away. The results were 50/50. One managed to take herself out of harm's way and turn a life around completely. More than one actually, but not always with cash. Others stayed with the devil they knew, and continued as before.

The difference is often denial. Some refuse to see a poor situation as being untenable, either through stubbornness or fear of change. The stiff and frail are more likely to break brittle bones by trying not to fall, than a child who is flailing and falling all the time on the ice, learning how to robustly bounce off challenge, and avoid the retreat into fear. Call it continuous improvement, agility, call it what you like. It is a state of mind, a habit that we often set aside as we try to control more and more of our environment, instead of adapting to it.

Then, there is often someone else trying to keep people down, laying guilt at their doorsteps for not thinking of their needs instead of themselves. Blame-free diagnoses apply to ourselves too. We can't accept the blame for forces beyond our control either. It is not a question of strength or determination. Not everything turns out as we intended.

Autonomy is a good strategy for self-preservation, but only if you are self-sufficient. When you need the cooperation of others, you have strong dependencies and that hold you back, and tug heads back under water. Pride comes not only before a fall but also a sense of expectation and understanding. Often we need moral support the most.

If one has that most venerated of qualities the `indomitable spirit' to try again (sometimes the hardest won gift of all), it is possible to alter the scope of our own expectations to fight another day. But to do so we must each adjust our criteria for success. Indomitable is also stubborn. Fighting for the wrong idea is no good. Someone quoted my own words to me recently: "The trick is to give meaning to failure" (I think I was writing about research). First we have to see when we are not succeeding, and by what criterion. Then we have to take ourselves out of the circumstances of failure. That is perhaps the hardest thing of all: success and failure are relative in many ways. Nor does popular success follow our own schedule: it comes from others' approvals which are fickle.

"If you need too much attention, it gets hard to overrule
So often fragile power turn to scorn and ridicule"
N. Peart

In our world, we will always compromise on what we mean by success and failure. Personally, I always want to minimize everyone's suffering (as I all too easily suffer for them) as we all navigate the ice, and not lead ourselves into exploitation by an imagined sense of guilt. Getting out of poverty is often one person at a time.

Ethically, there is always dilemma: to save ourselves first, or to make a sacrifice for others? I don't believe in right and wrong, but I do believe in the ability for each of us to contribute and make a difference. For that we first need to not merely survive but also find it within ourselves to prosper individually.

MB Oslo Thu Aug 14 10:25:09 CEST 2014