We’re terrified of the word. Many of us grew up this way and have spent our entire adult lives beating it from our doorways. We remember the fear, the helplessness and the frustration of being poor.
As the economic crisis falls like a wet blanket on our souls, the issue of loss and struggle has risen anew. As a nation, we’ve enjoyed the wealth and ease that has set us apart from most of the world. We love to shop and couldn’t care less if we need the items we buy. We give away what some would dream to have. We eat and eat, while others go hungry.
Even our poverty looks different from that in other parts of the world. In this city, you can be without a house and a job and still eat semi-regularly, get some level of medical attention and have a change of clothes. The food may be old and cold, the medical attention may not be cutting edge, the clothes most likely will be worn, but they are thankfully within reach.
A friend of mine once remarked jovially, “We were poor growing up, but we didn’t know it.” Well, Buddy, I knew I was poor. When you can see the road from the hole in the bottom of your family’s car, you’re not deluded. When you watch your
daddy painfully count out the change for your lunch money, adding whatever pennies he can find, you become aware. When you can’t wait for your sister to take her outfit off so you can wear it to school the next day, something tells you that you may not have as much as others.
Though my poorness was difficult at times, it still was not awful. I attended private school for part of my childhood, traveled and enjoyed many educational enrichments. I ate every day. I lived in a house. My father finally got rid of the Flintstone car and got one with an intact floor. We laughed about the memories.
My father said we were a poor family with middle-class values. He taught his children not to be ashamed of not having and to never let the lack of money stop us from doing whatever we wanted, because desire and effort can make a way. He taught us about other kinds of wealth.
I know a woman who has not worked in several years because of cancer and a brain tumor. She is the thriftiest person I know. When she needs clothes, she sends out e-mails to her friends and lets them know she is looking for any items they no longer want. They leave them in bags on her front door. An anonymous person pays her rent. Her family brings her food. She attended a private college. She went to school a semester, then worked a semester. She graduated with little to no debt. She rarely complains, and she makes her life work. She is tough as nails, and I admire her greatly.
What will our newfound poverty teach us? We can learn to lean a little harder on each other and ask for help. We can reach out to those who have less, like those in biblical times who deliberately left grain in their fields for the poor to pick up and eat.
We have been independent, and we have grown fat. The lean years have come. We can grow rich in new ways: in friendship, interdependence, sharing life, laughter, spirituality, hope and faith. Let’s indulge.
Tabi Upton, MA-LPC, is a therapist at New Beginnings Counseling Center.