At the risk of sounding like I’m comparing “grades of poor” and not fairly assessing the trauma and desperation of the deeply impoverished, I’m going to talk “big picture” for a few moments. This comes after a Black Friday of death and destruction at various Wal-Marts, as well as my discovery of one woman’s writing on how poverty drives her decision-making – it’s well worth the read – check it out!.
Poverty comes in all shapes and sizes, from the generations-long persistence of just being poor and having no apparent options, to the freshly minted sort that comes after economic meltdowns and shifts in the employment landscapes. A perfectly-timed combination of medical emergency, insurance limitations and job change, can put the most solvent of us under water, and more people than we know are struggling daily… even while seeming to be living the dream.
That’s one sort of poverty — the day-to-day struggle, the lack of any clear options, the simple moment-by-moment life when you’re so very close to the edge… or not… depending on how well the car holds up or whether or not your kids or pets are sick. It’s deadly, it’s wearing, it’s persistent, and it strips the last shreds of dignity from you, even as it dissolves any hope for your future.
It’s a daily barrage of logistical issues, one problem after another, one trashed plan after another, that drains your energy and sucks the life out of you. And all you can think of is how to get through the day. That kind of logistical poverty, which keeps you forever on edge, forever stressed, makes it literally impossible to think or dream about anything else in your life, aside from survival.
And it’s the sort of existence that I doubt many financial planners can envision, when they exhort people to save the first 10% of their earnings in an interest-bearing account. For a lot of folks, that first 10% is already spent before it arrives. And any interest-bearing account they might have access to, is actually a negative-sum game, returning less interest than the rising cost of living sucks away.
And then there’s another sort of poverty — a poverty of the spirit, which permeates the soul with thoughts of not-enough, of self-absorbed pain, of thinking that you have it much worse than anyone else, and you cannot possibly have enough to share with others, because you do not have enough, yourself.
This sort of poverty, I believe, makes all the other sorts possible. It makes it possible for greed to run rampant, for stratifications of wealth to ossify and become “just how things are”. It makes it possible for the Very, Very Wealthy to look out at the rest of the world and turn a blind eye to the suffering that is everywhere, because they feel so much suffering themselves and feel only revulsion at the idea of reaching out to others. And it cuts off our ability to do the basic pragmatic things which will alleviate the stresses of logistical poverty, so that the poor can think bigger than their next meal, or whether or not the electricity will still be turned on when they get home from their 3rd job.
Poverty of spirit allows us as a whole society to dismiss day-to-day struggles of people with no hope of hope, and refuse to even admit to issues which could be addressed at a very fundamental, basic level, if only for one day. Sometimes, one day can make all the difference. Sometimes, one meal can mean the difference between an old and new life. Sometimes handing $20 instead of $10 to a homeless person, can mean the difference between being them stuck under a bridge and being able to afford a room at a cheap hotel where they can get a shower and a safe, good night’s rest.
And yet, we who can help cannot seem to find it in us to extend ourselves just that one simple bit, to offer the most basic, logistical help to others.
Because — we think — if they’re in that situation, they must have a “poverty mentality” which will keep them there, no matter how much we help them. If nothing else, they’ll just drink our help away or shoot it or snort it up their nose. We don’t want to perpetuate their dysfunction, so it’s better if we look away.
After all, if they’ve sunk so far, then there must be some systemic issue with them, some flaw, some degenerate trait that got them there. And that issue, that flaw, that trait, will put them right back where they started. We’ll just be reinforcing their bad choices and self-destructive actions.
And we’ll still be out that $20. We need that $20. For this week’s coffee. For movie tickets. For lunch. For that app or that game or that item we’ve seen others walking around and enjoying. To put gas in our cars, so we can drive 80 mph instead of 65.
We need that. Because we deserve it. Because we have it hard. Because we are suffering. So many of our inner hurts and aches are self-imposed, with our interpretations of what’s happening (often apparently bad) escalating into a perception of full-on assault from an unfriendly world. The more we dwell on the way we feel we’re being attacked, the more vulnerable we feel. And we need to shield ourselves… From what seems to be coming from outside — but is actually inside our own heads.
We need to protect ourselves. We need to ease our pain. We need to nurse the wounds and shore up our confidence. We need. And we take. And we refuse to give.
Because if we give to others, we might deprive ourselves. And considering how embattled we already feel, why would we want to do that?
Shouldn’t we be our own best friends?
Everyone has their own pain. Everyone has their own struggles. I’m not disputing that. The one thing I will say, is that in tightening up and refusing to give, in refusing to step outside our own pain, in staying frozen in our own agonies, we actually miss a valuable opportunity to reduce that inner pain and cut down on the agonies.
That opportunity lies in reaching out. In offering to others. In giving with an open heart, regardless of the “return on investment”. The act of giving, while beneficial to others (or sometimes not), is far more beneficial to us. To our souls. To our struggling spirits.
More times than I can count, I’ve handed money to beggars. I’ve slowed down the car and passed dollars through a car window to guys with signs at the Alewife interchange and down where the Mass Pike feeds out to Storrow Drive. I’ve heard the stories about how the bums at Alewife have their own little village, and for them begging is a career and they make hundreds of dollars a day, supposedly. And I’ve heard how the drug addicts living under the bridge at South Station send their women out to collect money because they get more sympathy.
And to be perfectly honest, more times than I have given, I have refused to give. I’ve heard those stories in the back of my head, exhorting me to not support those self-destructive lifestyle choices that keep people locked in prisons of their own making. More times than I have given, I have rolled up the window, or turned a blind eye, or crossed the street to avoid telling someone “No” when a better part of me asked, “Why not? Honestly, what would it hurt to part with a dollar right now?” I’ve justified passing by the poor and disenfranchised — as though they didn’t exist — with a million different reasons that have been freely supplied by a commercial culture that feeds on the need of its members to assuage their pain and prove that they “deserve a break”, considering how hard they/we have it.
And frankly, that feels like sh*t. Because I know what it feels like to be in desperate need. I know what it’s like to depend on the kindness of strangers and friends alike, and have my existence hinge on whether or not someone says, “Oh, okay… I guess I can help.” Almost 24 years ago, I was in pretty tough straits. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, if things had not worked out just right… if I hadn’t gotten help from random folks who were willing to reach out… if things hadn’t lined up just as they had… well, I could have ended up in the shoes of some of the people who now ask me for help.
More than two decades ago, ripping out the deeply flawed and poorly constructed infrastructure of my life and starting from scratch, was the only real option I had. It was that, or sink like a stone in the chaotic soup of everyone else’s idea of how I should be, and what sort of life I should life. And that choice put me closer to the margins of society than I actually realized at the time. I was so focused on where I was going, what changes I wanted to make, what my actual wishes and dreams were, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I could not afford the kinds of food and material things that people just take for granted. I got lucky a thousand times over, just following up on hunches, and the greatest luck I had was in the people I met who were willing to lend a hand to help me get back on my feet.
Every little bit helped. Even the kind words. A look from someone that told me I was a real person who really mattered. A few words of wisdom about how to make your heat stretch through the winter or how to prepare meals that would provide nearly a week of leftovers.
It’s been a while since I was that much in need. And I’m aware of that, every single day. It makes getting up and going to work feel like an honor. It turns doing yardwork into a celebration. It makes even the most mundane activities into something special. Simply because they truly are mundane.
Things aren’t easy right now, by any stretch, but I still feel a pressing obligation to give to others — especially the ones who ask. Maybe I can’t help in big ways — it’s been a number of years since I could do any charitable giving — but I can help in little ways. Even if I have to figure out a way to help that’s different from what was requested, I do feel a duty to at least make the effort. And those opportunities to do something, even if they never “matter”, are a very small version of what I wish I could do. Eventually I hope to do more. That, more than any accumulation of wealth, is my greatest ambition.
In the end, though, the real payoff for helping is to meet and encounter another human being who is, in fact, human. Maybe they are in tough straits. Maybe they stink. Maybe they are so filthy there is no way I will get within arm’s reach of them — I’m no saint, after all, and I have my limits to what I can take. Maybe they reek of cheap booze and cigarettes and God-knows-what-else. Maybe they won’t even look me in the eye. Maybe they can’t. But they are human. They remind me of the parts of life that test us all. And but for the grace of God, 24 years ago, I could have ended up like them.
So, when I drop a handful of change in a cup or I slip a dollar out a window or I buy a food pantry package for the holidays at the grocery store, I’m doing it for all of us — them and myself and the pure possibility of what one off chance might offer to someone who needs just a little boost today. Because while living on the edge of material ruin is no damn’ fun, living in an impoverished soul is that much worse.