Walk a mile in someone else’s battered shoes…
Why can’t we be friends? I’m not ghost-writing for Gandhi or the Dalai Lama and I’ll try to keep clear of that “haters gonna hate” chestnut.
The reason I’m feeling so human is that yesterday I spoke with a 65-year-old man who lives below the poverty line in western Sydney.
Chris Novak’s the one in eight Australians who live in less-than-ideal conditions, and he told me a heart-wrenching story.
He’s worked for most of his life. He’s served our country in the Army. He’s been married and divorced. He has two sons and has lost contact with both.
He’s been in and out of relationships, in and out of work, and in and out of bad rental properties in Sydney’s west for the last 30 years.
He’s been king hit. He’s been on a waiting list for the housing commission for 10 years. He spends about $25 a week on food. And some days the pain in his neck, his back and his joints is so bad that he can “barely put on my socks”.
Chris Novak could be my dad. My dad is the same age, and yet is fortunate and privileged enough to say he’s never had to go through the kinds of things Chris goes through on a daily basis.
We were overwhelmed on news.com.au yesterday by more than 300 comments. Many were touched by Chris’s story, but a shocking number of people had no sympathy at all.
“Why does he waste money on a car?” The guy can barely walk, so I’m sure that car helps.
Readers called Chris a bludger, someone who should have worked harder or saved more money or kept in touch with his kids. Others said he obviously blew his money on the pokies and booze - except that he doesn’t do either of those things.
“I’d love to win Lotto I suppose, but you have to have enough money to afford a ticket don’t you?” he told me.
Community psychologist Heather Gridley told The Punch that she was “shocked but not surprised” that so many people couldn’t feel for Chris.
“There’s a skill involved in empathy - actually being able to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes,” she said.
“Not everyone can naturally do that, or learn to, which is something that people who show compassion can do.”
There was some light. Some amazing people who offered to help. Two readers asked directly for Chris’s details, to help with groceries and petrol.
One man from the very top of the top end of town - a director of a prominent financial company in Sydney - emailed me to offer Chris part-time work.
Others weren’t so kind.
“In each of those cases what they’re not doing is stepping into his shoes. What they don’t do is take any responsibility for what he’s going through - it has to be somebody else’s fault,” Ms Gridley added.
“As a society, you do hope that people have compassion. But people don’t necessarily have respect and compassion in their heart.”
None of us know what it’s like to be Chris Novak.
And don’t tell me for a second that living on Austudy while going through uni is the same. Writing comments from an iPad while living in a share-house and eating two-minute noodles before a college piss-up, with parents ready to pick up the slack if things go wrong, is NOT the same as living in poverty.
On a person level, I could do more to help charities or donate my time; I’m certainly no pillar of philanthropy. But I do feel a responsibility and a guilt for being part of the society that lets people like Chris suffer.
I don’t blame him for his situation.
“We still like to see ourselves as the lucky country and it’s very confronting to say we’re getting more and more unequal and people are struggling,” Ms Gridley says.
“It’s a great shame that we need to be looking sideways at one another, rather than getting together and saying: ‘Who’s really winning out of all this?’”
Follow Chris on Twitter: @christoforpaine
Heather Gridley is a community psychologist from Victoria University.
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