Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BAD Poverty

Wow - for the second year in a row, I'm writing a Blog Action Day topic that I feel tremendously unqualified to discuss: poverty.

BAD (oooh, I love the acronym!) encourages people to incorporate the topic into their blog's normal focus - so a political blog would focus on candidates' positions on poverty, a tech blog might look at engineering that can help alleviate suffering, etc. This is a case where my extreme lack of blog focus really hurts. My posts seem to be both to scattered and both too specific to really adapt well to a topic. I mean, what am I going to do - blog about digitized poverty in classic Sierra games, the Civilization franchise, and post-modern fiction?

I think I'll fall back on a rambling autobiographical musing. Please stop reading this post now and save yourself.

I feel extremely fortunate to have grown up in a middle-class family. We weren't rich, but there wasn't a day in my life that I felt hungry, or needed to worry about where I would be sleeping that night, or whether I would have enough clothing to wear. The older I've grown and the more I learn about suffering in the US and the world, the more amazed I grow at the blessed life I lead.

I'm not sure at what time I first learned that there were truly poor people in this world. It may have been in Sunday school when we learned about Jesus's ministry. I do remember the first time that the idea of poverty made me feel bad, though. There was a song called "One Meatball" that is about someone - perhaps a hobo? my memory is vague - walks into a restaurant. He doesn't have a lot of money, so he tries to buy a single meatball. The waitress laughs at him. That just made me feel awful. The combination of things, really - the idea of someone not being able to have both spaghetti AND meatballs is kind of sad, but this song also revealed the world of mockery and cruelty that accompanies dire economic straits. When someone is truly poor, people who have means seem far more likely to treat them as a target of ridicule, or pity, or anger - although they wouldn't consciously think so, the homeless man or bag lady becomes almost sub-human in their eyes, and they no longer treat them with the same respect that they would show to their neighbors.

My first up-close look at poverty came in seventh grade, when I took a trip with the Berean Junior High Youth Group to Chicago. I'll be honest: some of my strongest memories from this outing are primarily social, like when we sang songs on the El or ate at an Egyptian restaurant. But I also remember walking through Cabrini-Green and painting apartments; driving down city streets and staring out the van windows at people shambling by; hearing from former gang members about what their lives had been like. I think that one of the best things that our leaders did was take us to the Water Tower Place immediately after one of our clean-up projects. For those of you who aren't familiar with Chicago, this is a very swanky, upscale shopping center. And here we were, wandering around in our dirty clothes. Frankly, we teenaged boys weren't that put out by it, but the underlying message was clear: even though this country doesn't have laws controlling where people can live and shop, our social mores and economic structures enforce a de facto segregation of rich from poor. Most poor people would not be at all comfortable walking through that snobby place, any more than a wealthy stock trader would want to walk through the Tenderloin. And while the Chicago trips were real eye-openers for me, I was always aware of their limitations. I still had not really FELT what poverty was like. Even though I had finally seen it up close, it was still somehow unreal, part of another world. I knew that in another two days I would ride back to the Twin Cities and resume my comfortable suburban existence. I was painfully aware that the trips were much more about trying to shake me out of my isolated mindset more than they were about me "saving" the poor of Chicago by giving them a horrible paint job.

I think I did two Chicago trips with Berean, and then another one or two with College Church after we moved. Weirdly enough, I think these trips did a lot to cement my love of and desire for urban life. Despite my sense of separation from the people I saw, Chicago seemed more "real" to me than my suburban existence. It had the true extremes of human life: extreme beauty and extreme ugliness, wealth and poverty, faith and scorn. The African-American churches we attended also seemed incredibly vibrant and immediate... I was never seriously tempted to go Pentecostal, but could certainly see the attraction. After having seen the extremes in Chicago, it seemed somehow improper to retreat to my comfortable life, ignoring the reality of poverty.

Now, I can pretty much guarantee that if and when my parents read this post, they will already be thinking about a notorious statement I made as a youngster. My comfortable upbringing did not mean a lot of disposable income, and when I reached the age that I wanted to buy things, I grew frustrated at my limited means. When I had my eye on, say, a computer game, I would save and save for months - but, because I bought presents out of my allowance, I was regularly tapping it for five birthdays for April through August, then again for November and Christmas presents for everyone in December. I was probably paying more attention to my income and outflow than most kids my age, and didn't like what I saw. In a fit of pique, I tried to describe my frustration to my parents, explaining that I felt like I was "trapped in a cycle of poverty."

Needless to say, I STILL hear about this twenty years later.

This is one of those cases where I really wish I had clearer memories about what was going on. Was I asking for a raise in my allowance? My guess would be yes, though I might have just been venting. What specifically was I hoping to buy? Did I ever threaten to cut down on gift-giving?

Still, I think that exchange captures a lot about my personal attitude towards money. Because I've never lived on the edge, I don't have the appropriate degree of fear towards losing everything; at worst, I feel an annoyance at not having everything I want. Early on I told myself that I didn't want to be rich, didn't want to become a millionaire. All I wanted was to feel comfortable: to not need to keep an eagle eye on every little purchase I made, to provide for myself and any family I might have. I decided that worrying about the big things would be okay - cars and a house - but that if I could ever reach the point where "little" stuff didn't cause me stress, then that would be enough.

And you know what? I've made it. Through very little virtue of my own - I owe so much of my present good position to my parents, my teachers in school, my friends and university, and of course all the companies I've worked for over the years. But there was a certain point a few years after graduation when I sort of stopped, looked around at my life, and thought, "This is good. I am content. From here on out, everything is pleasantly superfluous."

Now, of course, I have a new worry to contend with: keeping an eye on the little green monster. Mammon is a powerful force, and however little or much you have, the temptation is always there to get more. I would love to see a survey asking people how much money they think they would need to be happy, plotted against their current income. I don't think there's any point along that scale where most people would say that they have enough.

I think this point is perfectly illustrated in this recent Dinosaur Comic. I'm not sure how exactly to put it - if our relationship with money gets more "complicated" as we get older, or if it's just greed, or what, but it does feel like there is increasing pressure to equate material wealth with personal worth. Even if we won't always directly say it, most people assume that it is better to have more. I do love the phrase "LifePoints". It reminds me of an incident involving the character Silk from David Eddings "Belgariad" (part of a long line of books I loved as a child that proved, upon later examination, to be embarrassingly bad). Silk was a thief in the D&D mold, who loved stealing stuff when he wasn't using his dexterity to help out the party; his larcenous attitude concealed a fundamental decency and adventurous virtue. (Lawful Good!) Anyways, throughout the series he steals more and more gold, gems, etc. At one point the party needs to dump everything and flee. With a sigh, Silk tosses his ill-gotten gains aside. Garion commiserates with him. Silk replies with something like, "Oh, the money isn't important. It's the game that I love. Money is just a way of keeping score." I'm not sure that I'd like to adopt that as my own life philosophy - it's a bit depressing to think that our primary purpose should be the accumulation of goods - but I do admire the idea of someone being able to discard all (or most) of their gains when the time is right.

For me, the key is keeping perspective and counting my blessings. The more I look at the wealthy millionaires in Silicon Valley who joined Google in 2001, the more dissatisfied I become. The more I look at how most of the world lives, and the suffering of people close to home, the more satisfied I become. With that personal satisfaction comes, or should come, a sense of obligation. Like I said before, I can't give myself all or even the most credit for how things have turned out for me. It seems only fair that other people should have the same sort of chances and support that helped me reach the place where I am today.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this one. I hadn't heard of Cabrini-Green, so I checked out the Wiki article you linked to and was fascinated (in a sad way). Not sure you give yourself enough credit for where you are now, but I see your point, and yeah, familial support and a good start in life play huge roles.