You may have heard the grumbling in the media recently over Gwyneth Paltrow’s failed food bank challenge. Gwyneth bought $29 of groceries for one week, which is the amount 1.7 million New Yorkers who receive food stamps are reportedly given. Gwyneth made it only 4 days into the challenge before she admitted defeat. She was then heavily criticized by many people for not only her failure to live on less but also for the strange items she purchased (including several limes but no meat).
This isn’t the first time that Gwyneth has been criticized for her cluelessness about what life is like for average people but I believe she was unfairly targeted by critics in this case. I think the real problem is with the challenge itself.
The #FoodBankNYChallenge was issued to Gwyneth and others by Mario Batali in an effort to raise awareness about hunger and the challenges of living on a strict food stamp budget (the American program has recently been renamed SNAP). Batali said, “for one week, walk in someone else’s shoes. Knowledge is power, and by truly understanding what our friends and neighbors are going through, we will be better equipped to find solutions.”
Sounds like a noble endeavour, right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Consider that the challenge is meant to be undertaken for one week. Then consider the quote, “…by truly understanding what our friends and neighbors are going through.”
One week, at the end of which participants are able to leave the challenge behind and return to their regular lives with, one would hope, a new perspective.
I have heard of many church youth groups organizing overnight camp outs on the streets of major cities in order to help young people gain perspective on what it is like to be homeless. But how can a young adult who lives at home in relative comfort with his parents, with food on the table, a roof over his head, and most likely a bright future full of potential understand the plight of a homeless person by spending one night on the streets?
The difference between a person who is living in an undesirable situation such as poverty and a person who is not is the ability to leave that situation. Consequently, the person who attempts to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” can never truly understand the implications of living such a life.
Do you truly understand what it is like to live in a new house if you have only taken a tour of it? Would you truly understand what it is like to live the rest of your life in a wheelchair if you sat in one for an hour, a day, a week?
As long as you have the option to exit the home or the wheelchair or the life of poverty you are incapable of understanding what life is truly like for someone else.
Which begs the question; why do a challenge like the one Gwyneth did in the first place? Isn’t it better to make informed decisions based on facts than to attempt to force ourselves to feel a level of pseudo-compassion? Gwyneth could do much good by simply blogging about the issue, making a sizable donation to the organization, and encouraging others to do the same.
When you attempt to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” you will only ever understand what it is like to borrow their shoes for a little while. You can never truly understand what someone else’s life is like. Don’t force yourself into a situation that is designed to elicit compassion that you don’t already feel. Instead, use the resources that you have available to you now. Listen, think, research. This is a better way to help each other.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BEST WAY TO UNDERSTAND OTHER PEOPLE’S PERSPECTIVES AND RAISE AWARENESS FOR CAUSES?