I complain about all the rain storms we are getting this season, or how cold it is some days. We love to talk about the weather here, so it was no surprise when it came up as the conversation topic during one of our senior meals at the Lake City Community Center. I was sitting at a table with a few of our diners. I knew at least few of them were facing homelessness and living in make-shift tents outside. What did they have to say about the cold and wet weather? One of them, we’ll call him Rob, said, “Oh! It’s all fine. you just have to layer up. That’s all.”
That’s all? Here I am, complaining about rain and cold when I barely have to stay outside a few minutes every day. While I appreciated his positive attitude (well, what else can you do when you have no other option?), it got me thinking if that attitude is something I should celebrate. We often hear platitudes like ‘attitude is everything’. We glorify that ‘can do’ attitude and make hero of people who show that, and consequently, losers of people who don’t. It fits the story that we like to tell ourselves: with the right attitude you can do anything you want. Very inspiring indeed. Never mind that the odds are designed to stack against you. Never mind that for some people, it’s easy to have an attitude and succeed even without any. Never mind that the facts don’t hold up to the test — a few anecdotes aside, and inspirational nonetheless, the primary determinants of success for most folks have nothing to do with attitude, and they have everything to do with one’s class, race, gender, and so on.
So what about Rob, my friend at the table? I wondered, when I’m extolling his attitude, am I placing responsibility for his situation squarely on his individual actions or behavior? Does that mean that I am abdicating my responsibility in the system that creates homelessness? If one doesn’t have the ‘right’ attitude, does that make it okay for him to sleep outside? And, what about issues related to food security? Should we blame people for not having the ‘right’ attitude and for not being grateful for what they’re handed out? Or, do we face our broken food system that leaves too many people undernourished and hungry, in spite of having abundant food everywhere?
It’s not that attitude is immaterial. It can help people go through some tough times better. But let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that it’s enough or even a prerequisite to take someone out of homelessness or poverty or hunger. Our friend here has the right to a job, a living wage, medical insurance, affordable home, healthy food, and social safety net. All of those can only come through systemic changes in our policies, procedures, and practices. Those are things that we have designed and therefore, we have the power to change, and design differently, to create equitable access of opportunities for everyone.
“Can do” attitude is a luxury that privileged people can afford. For the people like Rob, it’s about surviving another day without food, or without a stable shelter in a cold and wet city. Some people do defy the system and become inspirational success stories. We give all our attention to them, and not the others who are left behind. Rob may become a ‘success story’ somewhere, someday. But for the other thousands who won’t, it’s not their attitude that’ll come in the way of their success. It’ll be the collective inaction of people who can do something to change our unjust system, but prefer complacency instead to maintain status quo.