The first time I was acutely aware that our lives could be very different one from another was in junior college. Up until then, the high school friends I’d hung out with were all “middle-class” like me – a roof over our head and three square meals a day meant we weren’t lacking in any material sense, but we definitely weren’t rich enough to splurge on things like branded clothes or eat in expensive restaurants. So it was a rude shock to me when I discovered that my then 17 year old classmate had never taken a (public) bus before. Never. She had no need to. In her entire pristine life, she had always been chauffeured everywhere by her mother. I was horrified!
It took me a pretty long time to come to terms with that. I don’t know whether to describe my feeling as envy or jealousy, or perhaps a bit of both. But that incident jolted me awake, and that was my first experience with social stratification. Of course, I started to be painfully conscious of all the things I did not have in comparison to my classmates. More importantly, though, it forced me to think about those who have less than I do.
This profound revelation coincided with that phase of my life when I was all gung-ho about saving the poor and marginalized of the world. I wanted to be the Nelson Mandela who led his country out of apartheid. I wanted to be the Mother Teresa who cared for the sick and dying. I wanted to sweep all the beggars and buskers off the streets and give them shelter and food.
I also started pondering the meaning of the phrase “All men are created equal”. Because obviously, not all men are created equal. Some are born into rich families, some are not. Some are born whole, some are not. While a billionaire can decide on a whim that she wants to go to the Swiss Alps for a walking trip tomorrow, the blind man sitting there peddling pens and tissue packs wonders when his next meal will be.
Every artist who respects his craft knows, not all are created equal.