The Poverty of Compassion

Some times, the things that divide us are of our own imagining.

People’s capacity for denial always surprises me.  My own capacity for denial can leave me speechless.  On a recent trip to the Good will Outlet, I experienced a new kind of poverty, a poverty of compassion.

For those who don’t know: the Outlet is where all the Goodwill inventory rejects go to die.  Everything is dumped in large blue bins and things are typically sold by the pound.  The bins often emit odors including the occasional whiff of human waste.  This place is not for the faint of heart but it is the land of the best deal.  I glean those things that can be saved and either resell them or use them to clothe my family.  I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I frequent this place and even more embarrassed by what I’m about to tell you.

As I’m digging through the bins, I find myself glaring at a fellow digger who just entered my personal space.  A bigoted thought flashes through my mind based on ethnicity.  Some how I think I’m better than this person.  Suddenly, I realize how unfair, how unjust and just how crazy that is.  We’re both bottom feeders, risking putting our hands in poop  in order to survive.  I’m no better or no worse.

I feel a profound sense of shame at my arrogance.  I, who have been judged and found lacking time and time again, has the audacity to judge another in exactly the same way.

Later, in the week, I share my revelation with another who quickly assures me, “Carol, you are better.”

I know what she is trying to say.  I have a college education, I’ve got a few advantages but I am not better in any way, shape, or form.  She is as guilty as I was and often am of judging some one by a different criteria if they also happen to be poor or appear to be poor.

Now, back to my smelly bin.  This gentleman of color, accidentally pulls a garment from my hand.  My face reflects my frustration.  He apologizes and hands the garment back to me with the subdued posture of a dog that has just been scolded.  All this has occurred without a word from either of us but we know exactly what is happening.  I am dominant because I am white and for no other reason.  With horror, when I realize how awful this interaction is, how wrong I am to feel the way I do about this perfect stranger, I speak.  “No, it’s okay.”

He searches my face for a sign of gentleness.  Do I mean what I say?  His faces asks me questions that I don’t want to answer.

If he only knew the shame I felt.  Right now, I fight back tears.  I behaved in the same cold and indifferent way that people have treated me since the slide into poverty has become a trap.    The well-meaning often have given advice but it’s not based on the reality of my experience or the experience of being poor.  I desperately cling to the idea that I’m better than the next poor person.  Maybe if they made better choices, worked harder, tried harder, they wouldn’t be poor.

This is exactly the kind of thinking that has failed to provide for the least among us.  We deride single mothers of color for being drains on the welfare system without ever really knowing a single mother’s challenges.  Most of the poor work much harder than the people who believe they are above them in value or worth or potential.    I might have a college education but I’ve worked minimum wage jobs alongside some remarkable people who where kind and generous.  They often possessed a quiet nobility of character than I often find lacking in myself.

Every poor person, I know and I actually know more than you’d think, wants to work at a job that allows them to support their families without having to rely on government handouts.  I depend on food stamps to feed my family.  Every single time I use that card I am embarrassed.

When I’ve had to ask others for help and am turned away, I am embarrassed and ashamed.  I’ve tried to make sure that my children don’t end up homeless and I might fail.  We will have to move soon.  We do not qualify for any open market apartments.  Even if we did, our credit is terrible. We would love to be able to pay all our bills but despite the hours I do work, the digging through bins and reselling, the struggling to work an independent business because no one responds to the resumes and applications we continue to send off,  we can’t.

I’m often faulted for not working harder, for not making the “right” decisions, for not trying hard enough.  America is the land of  opportunity.  the rag-to-riches story is just an effort away.    Tell that to the over 46 million Americans who live below the poverty level.  A level that doesn’t do justice to the real cost of living.  (That figure is collaborated by two books I’ve recently read: The Rich and the Rest of Us by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West and So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America by Peter Edelman.)

After ten years of collection calls, a bankruptcy, food stamps, public health care, the stress of it all is chipping away at my health.  I have a few months to get my blood sugar down or I’ll need to add another medication to the list of things I already take to try and keep myself going.    Even with insurance co-pay, my months prescriptions cost more than $100.  That is a small fortune when you live so close to the bone.

The line that separates you from me is often a very thin one.  You might only be a paycheck away from walking on my path.  You might be a medical emergency away from poverty.  You might be a lay-off away from joining me.  Just like me, you might judge another based on something arbitrary or a useless criterion but it’s what it takes to keep the fear at bay, the fear that it could happen to you.

Every one of those 46 million Americans has a face.  There is a life behind the number.  There are victims who have given up and there are heroes no one will ever recognize. There are always people who abuse the system whether it’s welfare or corporate bankers who have never been held legally accountable for their role in the mortgage debacle.  They are not the majority.

The poor are worthy of respect.  Respect should never be based on income.  The lives behind the numbers don’t want to be judged or given advice that has little application to the world they must live in.    What they need, what I need is human compassion.  They need the opportunity to earn a living wage and to be able to provide for themselves.  They need a hand up.  They need support.  They. . . we. . . I . . .don’t need your judgment, your callous indifference, your insistence that if only we’d follow your advice our problems wouldn’t exist.  You prove ignorant of a reality you have never known.  I challenge you to trade me places for a day.

It’s easy to feel like a victim.  As we enter the final phase prior to losing our home, the feeling of defeat and the panic over what comes next can feel overwhelming.  Homelessness is a very real possibility.  The disappointment, I feel at many of the people in our lives is profound.  The gratitude I feel toward those few that have proven loyal and loving is equally profound.  It’s shown me the power of love and the nobility of courage and integrity.  There is a God of muck and mire.

I am humbled by this experience. It keeps me on my toes.  It calls upon reserves of resilience and courage that I didn’t think I possessed.  It’s allowed me to experience a side of human nature that I find abhorrent within myself as well as with in others.  It’s given me an opportunity to grow, to be better than I was.

I know I will be criticized for my candor.  So be it.  It is imperative that poverty is given a human face.  Instead of assigning blame or creating divisions that separate us into piles of “us” and “them”, we,  as human must begin to see poverty as an opportunity for compassion and a problem for which each one of us bears a responsibility to work toward solution.  It’s time some one had the guts to address the appalling indifference demonstrated by good people. It’s past time for the poor to have a voice, to be respected, to be embraced.

To paraphrase, Jesus: The poor, we’ll always have with us and we will be held accountable for how we treat the least of these.    Poverty and the response to it: an equal opportunity employer.

I am the person behind the words printed here. I write because my heart will not allow me the option of NOT writing. It has taken me half a life time to discover this basic truth, but now that I have, writing is as natural as breathing. This is where my breath takes the form of words.

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