Why are we so confused by the sight of poverty?


We see such people on city streets every day. Someone stops, throws money at them, others look away. But for most of us, the sight of beggars begging people causes feelings of embarrassment and even shame: we feel insecure and do not know how to react.

“This happens because we are torn between three practically incompatible models of behavior,” psychotherapist Kateryna Khmelnitskaya analyzes the situation. – The modern logic of the market requires us to be as productive, calculating and frugal as possible. We want to enjoy the benefits we have earned and at the same time feel virtuous. ” This contradiction is formulated by the almost insoluble question: “How to be an egoist, hedonist and altruist at the same time?” But there are other reasons for our embarrassment.

Fear of falling

Olga, 29, took part in the distribution of free lunches that the Salvation Army brings to the Kursk railway station. “Most of all I was struck by the fact that the people who came to us once led a completely normal life, they were not homeless from birth, they had families, children, housing … And then something happened, and life was rapidly rolling under slope. This was tragic irreversibility, and for the first time I was really scared. This can happen to anyone, and therefore to me. “

“The unconscious fear of being in the place of an outcast, homeless, lonely person really pushes some to give alms,” explains Jungian analyst Stanislav Raevsky. – This anxiety lives somewhere in the depths of our psyche, in its archaic layers, in our collective unconscious. Once upon a time, ancient man performed a ritual of sacrifice, wishing to appease the formidable gods and ward off misfortunes.

Perhaps, when we sacrifice to the beggar, we repeat this archetypal gesture, as if we conjure a certain deity, hoping to avoid his anger, but in fact – to free ourselves from the fear of becoming the same disadvantaged. “

“Wars, revolutions, gulag, famine, change of social order – decades of instability and many examples from the stories of their family, acquaintances and strangers who suddenly lost everything, also support the unconscious fear of poverty,” adds Kateryna Khmelnitskaya. That is why it is so easy for us to identify with the unhappiness of another person, and this experience motivates us to give alms.

But “giving” does not always mean “recognizing yourself in another”. By giving, we get the opportunity to feel like a person ready to help someone in distress. And see the difference between yourself and those who ask us for help.

On the other side

Researchers conduct many surveys of Russians, trying to find out our attitude to the problem of begging in Russia. And they know little about what the homeless think about the world, about themselves and about us. Sociologists from the Ural Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted a survey among homeless people in Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg. It turned out that most of all they are worried about the lack of housing (82% of respondents in Yekaterinburg and 100% in Chelyabinsk), then – work, documents, medicines and other vital items. “Psychological problems and feelings of loneliness worry them to a lesser extent,” says Boris Pavlov, head of the study, head of the department of economic sociology at the Institute of Economics, Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “But they are almost indifferent to negative attitudes from others.”

How we explain our behavior

In the “group of mercy” at the Orthodox church in St. Petersburg, 37-year-old Yuri has been working for the fourth year. “We distribute clothes to the homeless and feed them. During this time, I have listened to more than one hundred stories: the majority, almost 90%, of homeless people, judging by their words, chose this life for themselves. They are satisfied with the fate of a beggar, and they do not want to change anything. When I tell my friends about this, some of them are surprised, while others say that they will stop giving alms altogether. “

Choosing whether to serve or not to serve, each of us somehow explains to himself his behavior.

By understanding our own emotions and motives, we will begin to understand ourselves better … and may want to help others.

“I will not do this, because beggars are part of a criminal structure; It is humiliating for me to think that I am being held for a simpleton ”- this is one of the explanations, – says Kateryna Khmelnitskaya. – Other people say to themselves: “We must serve always and everywhere: what if my money will help someone change their lives.” Still others argue practically: than throwing money down the drain, it is more correct to buy food for a homeless person and make sure that he eats it, and does not exchange it for a drink, or that this food is not taken away by other beggars.

The motivation for our behavior can be very different and largely depends on the psychological characteristics and worldview of each person. “For example, such a view is possible: yes, this beggar, of course, is posing as a blind man, but he is a real artist, and such a talent must be rewarded,” continues Stanislav Raevsky. – A person who thinks in this way is sure: everything must be done wisely, even begging for alms. And if I were in a similar position, would I have done better? “

The ghost of guilt

None of us wants to burden life with strong, difficult experiences. “When faced with the disadvantaged, many of us experience a feeling of“ guilt-free, guilty, ”comments Kateryna Khmelnitskaya,“ we feel embarrassed because we are healthy and prosperous (at least in comparison with these people). Often, sincerely sympathizing with them, we feel relief: thank God, this is not with me. And those of us who have a grudge against beggars actually feel annoyed with our guilt because we don’t know what to do with that experience. ”

We not only empathize with the homeless, but we are also wary of them. They carry in themselves something ghostly, illusory. “We perceive their appearance as“ the descent of man to the animal state, ”continues Katerina Khmelnitskaya. – In their life there is a rejection of those forms of existence to which we are accustomed. And that scares us. “

Still, looking beyond the barrier that separates our well-being from the frightening territory of poverty can be helpful. “There is nothing shameful in trying to feel the other person, whatever he may be, imagining yourself in his role,” says Katerina Khmelnitskaya. “In general, it is difficult to sympathize, empathize, if you cannot imagine what the other is really feeling.”

“It would be useful for some of us to try on the role of a disadvantaged person,” agrees Stanislav Raevsky. – I gave this task to my patients: try to beg and analyze how they do it and how they feel at that moment. Try it – and you will learn a lot about yourself. After all, pride is one of the defining traits of character. And the way we overcome it turns out to be very informative! “

The right to choose how to behave and how to relate to the asking person, in any case, remains with each of us. But, if we can understand what drives us in this, we will better understand ourselves.

Are there many who give alms?

According to VTsIOM, published in 2019, the format of charity is changing, and now in Russia alms are given less and less often: 24% versus 30% in 2017, 32% in 2009, 36% in 2007. However, more and more Russians work as volunteers and participate in charities. promotions. Over the past five years, 69% of the population have taken part in a charity event at least once, and 19% are regularly involved in charity work.

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