Wouldn’t it be great to be a superhero? Seriously. You could come busting into people’s lives, breaking up their adversaries and woes and gain eternal adulation for yourself. In the ՚50s you could be Superman or the Lone Ranger. In the ՚20s you could be Bert Wilson or Tom Mix. In the ՚90s you could be Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk. Today, you could be Chuck and Nancy.
The Messianic Complex is not a new idea. I assume many notable historic figures had it. Napoleon could have had it. Or Caesar Augustus.
Curiously, the actual messiahs of most religions lacked it. They had no idea of being worshipped for all the stuff they gave away for free to people that demanded it. In fact, I think psychiatry views a messianic complex as derangement.
Derangement or not, I suppose I have a touch of it. I was lucky to be invited to the FIMMA trade show in Bento Gonçalves, Brazil, some years back. During a break, one of the show staff took me on a tour that took us past one of the poor places in that area. People in North America that think they have seen “poor” without having been off the continent really don’t have a clue. I was an income maintenance worker in the welfare system for five years, and I have seen North American poor. It doesn’t hold a candle.
I asked the driver to stop so I could take a picture. He objected, saying it was not safe. I told him to stop, anyway, and to be ready if I jumped back in the car, so he did.
From my vantage, I was on the lip of a huge, steep ravine about half a mile across. Houses had been built up and down the sides of the ravine, the backs built into the dirt and the front on stilts. In front of the stilts was the back of another house, so close the occupants of the first house couldn’t throw waste water of the … porch? … balcony? without hitting the neighbor below.
These houses were down and across the ravine, and to my left and right as far as I could see. Thousands of houses. Maybe tens of thousands of houses. And when the rains come, there are mudslides, and if the top house slips, it pancakes down onto the next which pancakes down onto the next and so on. You can see the remains of slides coming up the road from Porto Alegre, with jumbles of the remains of houses and stilts sticking out like fractured bones in an offal pile.
Sensing the need for speed, I raised my camera for a shot, and stopped. In my attention to the landscape, I had missed a girl. She was right in front of me, at the back door of one of the houses. She was dressed immaculately — spotlessly — and was apparently on her way to her business of the day. Maybe she had a job. Maybe she had a friend. But she had a life separate from anything I have known or could know. She was beautiful, with shiny, young hair and wide, dark eyes. Maybe she was 17.
She was horrified and mortified to see me. Terrified. But she was not staring in fear at me. It was the camera. You could see she would rather be dead than be to captured in that time and in that place by the cold, context-barren record of film. “Who might see it? Who might know where I have to live?”
I recall thinking I had enough money on my debit card to totally change her life. But then, I thought, did I? At Brazilian prices, I could get her a car and an apartment in Rio, but what would my intentions be seen as? What would happen to her if she got a place in Rio? What would happen to her family, her friends, her co-workers or her church? And how many could I help before I was broke?
I recall a dinner one night at a trade show back home where the lady I was seated next to was from Guatemala City. She was talking about the poverty in part of the city, and explaining it was only a small part, despite what we in North America see.
She was talking about the save-the-children organizations that would come to Guatemala to take pictures of big-eyed girls for fund-raising, leaving the next day, never to return. “They don’t understand what they are doing,” she said. “If you give that little girl a five-dollar bill, you are signing her death warrant. Her life is not worth the $5 somebody else bigger will see.”
Harsh. One wonders where the funds the fundraisers raised went? My dinner partner says they did not go back to Guatemala. Maybe they went for purple robes and wine.
Somebody incited those women and children from Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador to join a caravan to the U.S. From news reports, it was hell coming up, despite the clear international aid that was provided to help them cover hundreds of miles a day. I don’t know if the reports were true. I wasn’t there. But it was harsh.
Harsher, still, was seeing their international “support” dry up when the clear political aim of defeating the U.S. border failed.
Part of me wishes we could collectively tax ourselves to the max and give free money to all the poor in Honduras. I have been there, too, and seen beautiful young girls in spotless, starched, white dresses walking barefoot on the rocks.
There are dozens of old sayings for wanna-be messiahs. One is “When you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. When you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
We in North America have tried to teach the world to fish. God knows we have tried. We rebuilt Europe and Asia following WWII. We established UNICEF and other agencies under the United Nations. We have sent food supplies to Ethiopia and Somalia. And desperate poverty — the kind of poverty that kills — prevails. Largely because of politics. It is not in the interests of the powerful warlords and charities of the world to share. Yes. Some are beneficent and some are benign. That means nothing.
So how do we teach a man to fish when all his fish are taken for the “good” of others? Do we go into Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Honduras and compel the rulers to share? Clearly not. We have tried that.
So what do we teach? If we are humble, we have only one message to teach, that message being not how we are superheroes, but how we achieved our own prosperity.
We all know the answer to that, but it is harsh. Really harsh. We got fed up with being told by a monarch what we had to share, we picked up a gun and we threw his ass out. That’s not my idea. That is what happened.
So the question presents: if we know how we found prosperity, how dare we teach others that it is we, not they, that are their salvation?
But it was not really the gun, was it? Wasn’t it a belief system and diligent attention to education that led to the formation of a more perfect union? After all, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot and Castro had an unshakeable belief in power from the muzzle of a gun. Maybe the answer is to be a model, to be charitable where we can and to educate in real values. Real morals. Real virtues. Not the engineered, remanufactured, overdone and vapid “niceness” of the latter-day, fundraising-messiah crowd.
We need unskilled workers. It is by being unskilled that you become skilled. No value to value. We can teach. But we don’t need citizens that come here the easier, softer way of ignoring, despising and disregarding the law. Congress can pass any law it wishes to bring in the caravans, but the process of the law in is the hands of Congress and the responsibility, harsh or not, rests on its shoulders.
The girl in Brazil haunts me. By now she is either older or dead. She may have found a spouse and happiness. Happiness is possible in poverty, by the way. Maybe she found a pathway out. Not everybody in poverty stays in poverty. Not there; not here. It seems to be a personal task.
I never took the picture.