The Privileged Few
Looking around my pleasant apartment in Salisbury I notice a tasteful array of softly-hued furniture around me, wooden floors, a Persian rug and a gentle warm light by which I can write. Although I’m in the centre of town, the double glazing keeps the noise out — as well as the recent autumnal chill.
I read recently that the richest 85 people in the world own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion people on Earth. I remember reading this stat, suitably shocked at this injustice. My mind boggled at the thought — I am unable to comprehend a hundred thousand people, never mind a million, or a billion!
As I read the article a steady, creeping thought begun to tug at the fringe of my mind. I placed my caffeine free Redbush tea (imported from South Africa) back on the table, and stepped away from my shiny Apple laptop to allow myself to think more clearly for a moment.
At that moment I was taking a short tea break from my design work. I work hard — some would say too hard — to try and keep the business going and to earn enough money to pay a fairly substantial rent and to allow us to eat. A combination of skill and years of hard work entitle me to my pleasant flat. They are the reason I can buy food from Waitrose (sometimes).
I tug the thread of thought to see where it will go.
I earned this
My skills, my abilities. I earned these over the years, right? Working as an intern in London, cleaning windows in the early hours to pay the rent (I always thought that would be a good story for the grandkids). Working hard for my old boss. Studying photography in my spare time. Finishing a degree when health issues threatened to make life difficult…
The thread began to unravel.
How did I end up at university? I didn’t work particularly hard at school. I irritated my teachers with back-talk and cheeky behaviour (probably more so because they felt I could do better and just couldn’t be bothered). I was never keen on doing work for grades (apart from music which I sought out grades in a competitive manner), and really tired of it by the time I was at university.
Yet my expectation was to go to university. I didn’t think about it a lot — it was just there, in the back of my mind, like the fact that I would get married and have children and buy a house. Future facts. Expectations that my life would go a certain way.
Maybe my parents built that expectation in me (intentionally or otherwise). Maybe on a sub-conscious level I was aware that they both had degrees, that dad was a well respected doctor who through hard work and dedication had been able to use his education to do an honourable job whilst saving enough to look after his family. Maybe I knew that he was saving up to put us through university, to give his children those chances — the chances that lead me to where I am now, in this apartment, writing this article, thinking these thoughts. I thank God for my parents and the opportunities they have provided for me.
I was not born with silver spoon in mouth. But I was born with opportunity.
I am not one of the wealthiest 85. They are an easy target — so much wealthier than me, so much more power. I am, however, richer than each and every one of the 3.7 billion, whose average wealth is just $486. I am on the wrong side of inequality.
A fleeting conviction
Winston Churchill once said,
“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he just picks himself up and stumbles on.”
It is so easy to allow the realisation of our privilege to dawn on us for five, ten minutes — maybe even a whole day. But then we brush ourselves off and carry on with life, maybe allowing the lie that “we deserve this”, and “we earned this” to seep back in.
If we say, “we deserve this”, of the wealth we have attained, the house we live in, the car we drive — we are also saying, “they don’t deserve this”. We deserve to be richer than 3.7 billion others. They don’t. We earned this. They didn’t.
Would we say that?
The challenge I find for myself is to go beyond a fleeting conviction. I challenge myself on my thoughts and how I consider others without such opportunities around the world. I can’t fix inequality on my own (indeed to think so would lack all humility in itself), but this is a problem with a solution.
Let’s be those who provide opportunity, not those who take it away.
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Originally published at grahamormiston.com on October 16, 2015.