I was gonna write something else this week but this one is stuck on my heart.
Our dear friend Aslam was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. The shock came just a year after he got married, a month before his son was to be born. The news has been a roller coaster – the tumor was discovered, then it was deemed malignant, then benign, surgery was successful, then it was deemed malignant again, and now he’s on chemotherapy.
Gratefully in all this, a healthy son was born in May, and mother and baby are doing well. Aslam is still in good spirits considering everything, though we fear the doctors have not been telling him the full truth about his prognosis (which is common here). So far the side-effects from chemo have been minimal, but we don’t know how the cancer is responding. We pray for him regularly, and held a prayer meeting at his home for him and his wife, and try to help in little ways.
We got to know Aslam due to his close working association with several families of foreigners here. He felt deeply affected by foreigners who came to help his country and did everything he could to help them. Aslam is a highly competent jack of all trades, a “fixer” in a sense, and became invaluable to more and more foreign families as they settled in the city. He was responsible for setting up all of our “office” space that we share, and helps organize language lessons for numerous people. He is always there for us.
Unfortunately, the weariness from the cancer (especially post surgery) limited his ability to do any of his paid work, and his wife in late pregnancy and then with an infant was unable to work either. Then of course the birth and the surgery and the chemotherapy and everything else cost a great deal of money. Even before Aslam’s son was born I began considering how much stress these financial issues could put on his family, worried they would have to move and that the health of mother and baby, not to mention Aslam as his body fought cancer, would all suffer as a result of the stress and displacement.
We decided to take up a collection among all the foreigners who knew Aslam. These are all people who are supported by donations coming from nations much, much wealthier than here where Aslam lives. They, living off the good will of wealthy people elsewhere, make more in a month than many of my neighbors would make in two years. They tend to live in places that my neighbors would consider upper middle class. We sent out a request and prayed that the situation would lead some of them to give sacrificially to the family. My ultimate hope was that Aslam would receive enough that he could put moving out of his mind for now, and perhaps even have some confidence that his wife and son would be taken care of to some degree if he were to take a turn for the worse.
So it was with great sadness that I heard from the family collecting the donations that most if not all of the people I asked gave nothing more than pocket money. What they gave would provide for not more than a few days or weeks rent in their own homes, maybe a night or two in a hotel when they go on vacation. It would not be enough to make a difference.
We tried to fill in the gap, but last week Aslam told me just before his fourth round of chemotherapy that he was looking to move out by the beginning of next month.
Yesterday Aslam asked me if I could find a room in the slum for his family.
This man who has helped so many people so much, who is on intimate terms with so many wealthy foreigners, who is dealing with stage four cancer and chemotherapy and has a wife who just gave birth and a two-month old son, is now looking to move into a slum where we struggle to find clean water. While temperatures have been over 90 with humidity in the 80s recently. Where power goes out and the fan stops day and night. When Peregrine brought up a potential room we had been offered earlier and I expressed my reservations, Aslam shushed me and said, “Right now my only consideration is budget.”
I’ve probably mentioned before that poor people tend to be more giving than rich people. What I rarely mention is that middle-class people, at least as a percentage of their incomes, are the least giving of all. In America they give about 2-3% a year on average. They’re also less likely than poor people to open their homes to others in an emergency, less likely to take in a foster child. The American middle-class lifestyle doesn’t wire us to give sacrificially to others, under any circumstance, even when the need is great.
There are sensible reasons why this is true. Middle-class people are conditioned to spend their money based on what they can “afford”. As a result, they nearly always spend just about all of it, their “needs” exactly matching their income every month. They’re also conditioned to think aspirationally, to expect their spending and their needs to keep increasing in the near future. If there’s anything left over then it is held onto tightly for the next month, because when you are always spending based on what you can afford then you will always feel like money is scarce. You will be on edge. You will be working for that extra cushion, make that extra income, get a little bit of space….which you will then spend on a nicer car or a bigger house or retirement investment and thus put yourself right on the edge again.
I don’t mean at all to imply that this is true of every single middle-class person. There are definitely exceptions. But the norm is the norm….and the norm of American middle-class people is to spend 97% of their income on themselves and 3% on others.
If this was just a question in the abstract, then we could come up with various excuses and explanations and what have you.
But Aslam has stage 4 cancer, and a two-month-old son, and is moving into a slum.