Recently, my co-worker rushed to clean the seat of a chair where a schizophrenic homeless man sat unaware that his pants were so low they were no longer covering what should have been covered. When she gently told him to pull up his pants, he apologized and pulled the up. My organization’s ability to serve this young man is limited, and he walks the street every night. Several people are working with him to try to find adequate services that will address his needs and provide him with a safe place to sleep. In the meantime, he has nothing more than what he can carry in his arms.
At the beginning of the month, I spent hours trying to find a way to get a young man back to his family. He had lost his job and with it the income that allowed him to pay rent or buy food. While on the phone with his mother, the operator broke into the conversation with a call from a prison. The prisoner was the young man’s father, who proceeded to tell me what a loser his son was. He also told the woman with whom I was talking that she should not travel the hour to pick up her son because he didn’t deserve it. Sadly, the mother listened, and the young man remained stranded with no support system or resources.
This week, a woman with six children called our offices asking for help. The electricity at her house, a run-down shack, had been shut off, and she had no hot water for baths or showers and no way to cook or heat up food. Her husband, who had lost his job a few months ago, had recently found employment but wouldn’t be receiving a paycheck for several weeks. Since the family had no electricity, and therefore no fans or air conditioning, they leave their windows open in hopes of a breeze. Because of that, the children’s bodies are covered in mosquito bites.
Every day, I hear conversations I cannot understand. My office is right next to that of our immigration attorney, so I listen daily to conversations in foreign language. Occasionally, I understand what is being said, and it is never heartwarming. I listen to families who came to the United States for political or humanitarian reasons and have no place to go. Just the other day, I witnessed a six-year-old child translating for her mother. She was telling our outreach worker about the eviction notice her family had received. At the age of six years, this little girl should be playing with dolls, taking dance lessons and swimming with her friends. Instead, she is doing all she can to prevent her family from being homeless.
Perhaps most controversial and yet most heartbreaking among the clients I encounter daily are the hundreds of people who live in generational poverty in the United States. Of these individuals, some were raised in families in which violence was a norm. Others lived in homes in which education wasn’t a value and in which routines such as dinner and bedtimes were foreign concepts. Some were born to parents who abused drugs and who neglected their children during the most crucial years.
Even though I come face to face with such poverty very day, I am also reminded that for every person who walks through our offices seeking assistance, there is another person who is pointing fingers and placing blame. I’ve heard it all:
“If people tried harder, they would have an education and a job.”
“Our country already has too many problems. Why should we help people from other countries?”
“If I can make it, anyone can make it.”
“I’m tired of my hard-earned dollars going to support woman who had kids just so they could live off the system.”
What many people don’t realize is that, as my co-worker says, “Life is one big crap shot.”
We don’t get to choose who are parents will be or where we will be born. We don’t get to choose how intelligent we will be or whether we will inherit a mental illness. And we certainly don’t get to choose whether we will be raised in an environment that values good judgement or in one where children are just lucky to get through childhood alive.
There are days when I wish I could yell to the world. I want to say that I completely agree we should all do our best and we should all make good decisions. But I also want to yell that some of us are fortunate to have been raise to understand cause, effect and consequences. Some of use are lucky to have been raised with values on which we make good decisions. Some of us were raised to think about the future rather than just the moment at hand. And some of us were raised with people who want us to excel rather than pull us down.
If life is truly a crap shoot, then I was lucky enough to roll a good deal. I may not have a lot of money or the biggest house on the block, but I am an intelligent woman surrounded by people who support me. Even better, I am surrounded by people who will do the same for a stranger who was never handed the same odds that I was.
My real fortune comes not just from having a job but from having a job that allows me to witness people who truly understand that their skills, knowledge, education and general good fortune aren’t just good luck. They received these gifts so they could use them to help and provide for others.
Getting to witness such acts to benefit the less fortunate on a daily basis makes me one of the luckiest woman in the world.
As we got older and our brains matured from concrete to abstract thinking, we realized that people and situations are complicated and that life comes at us in a broad spectrum of colors – not just black and white.
That was the paradigm in which I used to believe.
Maybe that’s because I’ve surrounded myself with individuals who have complicated views of the world and I have yet to meet anyone who is even close to perfect. Maybe that’s because my own life and belief systems are complicated. Or maybe it’s because I’m a social worker, which means I see the best and worst in people almost every single day.
For whatever reason, I sometimes forget there are too many people who have unrealistically simple views of the world.
And then life hands me a great big dose of a reality and I am left dumbstruck at how people can justify being judgmental by painting human behavior with broad brushes of right and wrong, good or bad and deserving and undeserving,
Even worse are the people who think they have THE answer for eliminating such complicated issues as poverty and violence.
Just this past week, a colleague asked an individual who works at an organization that serves low-income families what these families need to help them improve their situation. Instead of thoughtful dialogue, the individual began to rant about all the families that “abuse the system.”
Then he suggested that we stop rewarding women for getting pregnant so they can access to benefits.
Call me naïve, but I am highly doubtful that most baby-making situations are the direct result of a female thinking she will be financially secure if she has a baby.
With that said, I’m equally sure that there are women who aren’t concerned about getting pregnant because someone, be it the system or a grandparent or perhaps the father, will step up to help with the situation.
There are women who get pregnant because they don’t think about consequences and there are those who are desperate for love and attention. And there are low-income women who get pregnant because, shocking as it may be, they want to have a family.
And not every mother was single or lacked income when she got pregnant. People lose their jobs, and finding child care is difficult for those who do shift work. People face financial problems because of mental or physical illness every day. Relationships fall apart. Some women are brave enough to leave an abusive relationship only to face financial hardships.
Do you see what I mean about being complicated?
But people who prefer simplistic answers don’t want to consider complicated. They want to devalue the worth of single mothers or low-income families who experience generational poverty.
But my complicated (or mature?) mind can’t understand that way of thinking. Instead, I believe that we are all imperfect humans who have a relatively short time on earth. Some of us are born into better circumstances than others. Some of us had parents who nurtured us and helped our brains develop appropriately. Some of us had role models and grew up in homes where chaos was unusual and unacceptable.
In other words, some of us were just plain lucky, and last I checked, lucky and worthy are two entirely different concepts.
Life is not fair, and instead of wasting precious time and energy trying to balance the scales of fairness (something even my children know will never happen), we should spend our time and energy cheering on and supporting our fellow humans.
That doesn’t mean we should accept that people live poverty or that they have no responsibility for trying to improve their situation – they do. But that does mean that we should provide opportunities to help them improve, and, more importantly, we shouldn’t judge.
Often, that doesn’t involve changing circumstances or rules for other people. That involves changing ourselves.
That’s not easy. In fact, it’s rather… complicated.
Even though I like to consider myself an open-minded and fairly accepting individual, I haven’t always behaved in a manner that demonstrates this. In fact, there are times when I’ve acted foolishly and treated people horribly.
One of my worst infractions occurred when I was a teenager in a place that was supposed to promote love and acceptance: church.
At the time, our church was predominantly middle class. Parishioners were well-groomed, nicely dressed and carefully coiffed when they arrived on Sunday morning. Most were neighbors or co-workers who socialized with the same general crowd and who shoveled their dirty laundry into the closet to either hide it or pretend it didn’t exist.
Their equilibrium was disrupted one Sunday when a family from a nearby trailer park came to church and then began attending services on a regular basis. The parents and children were certainly wearing their Sunday finest, but they were anything but well-groomed and carefully coiffed. I remember the other adults at church were a bit patronizing but outwardly nice. The kids weren’t. We did our best to exclude the children, and we made fun of them behind their backs.
Eventually, the family stopped coming to church, and until recently, I had forgotten about them.
But I was reminded of them again a couple of weeks ago when a young woman who works at a local restaurant told me about her Sunday regulars. Her customers’ routine is to go out to eat after Sunday service, but the dish they enjoy most isn’t on the menu. Instead, they loudly and openly share what everyone else did wrong during the church service. They complain about children who misbehaved, and they make fun of the appearance of some of the adults. Apparently, they are too busy judging others to hear the sermon.
What I can’t fathom is why, as older adults, they feel the need to act this way.
As an adolescent, I know my behavior was contrary to the way I was raised. But, I was insecure and believed that I wouldn’t be at the bottom of the social ladder if someone else were there instead. As an adult, I realize how inconsequential, meaningless and ridiculous that social construct is. I also realize that there are a lot of adults who still buy into it. They falsely believe some people are superior to others and that asserting their superiority will ensure their place on their senseless social ladder.
For the most part, their behavior isn’t nearly as blatant as the hypocritical, church-going restaurant patrons, but it is still based on their need to affirm their status. Take, for example, a local non-profit leader who complained about business people being asked to attend community meetings at the local Department of Health and Human Resources office. This individual, who also lays claim to being a good Christian, said that community and business leaders shouldn’t have to be in the waiting room with the people asking for help/welfare.
Not to be presumptuous, but I’m pretty sure Jesus would point out that the people in the waiting room are the same people the community leaders see every day at school functions, churches and grocery stores and that the people on the presumed top of the social ladder are no closer to God than the people on the bottom. That’s assuming he would even acknowledge such a foolish concept to begin with.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been told I’m a stupid failure.
That was news to me.
Up to this point, I always thought I was a fairly bright person and a contributing member of society.
According to some people, I was wrong.
I was wrong because none of my accomplishments have involved making significant amounts of money, and that is how some people define success.
It doesn’t matter that, during my entire academic career spanning high school through graduate school, the lowest grade I ever received was a B. (Just for the record, two of those three B’s occurred when I was an undergraduate less focused on academics and more focused on having fun.)
I’m apparently stupid because I think that caring for other people is more important than accumulating wealth.
It doesn’t matter that I had a professor in graduate school who told me I was the brightest student he’d ever taught.
I’m apparently stupid because I thought the American dream was built on the concepts of dignity and respect for all people — not just for those who share the same religious or political beliefs or for those who have large bank accounts.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve developed and implemented programs that help people who were struggling.
I’m apparently stupid because I didn’t realize those people didn’t deserve any help since it was their own fault that they couldn’t make ends meet.
And, on top of being stupid, I’m also apparently a failure because I have never had a big salary or retirement plan myself.
Not only have I never made a big salary, but I also respect other people who don’t make big salaries: social workers, teachers and people who work for nonprofit organizations or small businesses that often can’t afford to offer health insurance or any other benefits. I also respect people who work hard in tough jobs that have poor pay and benefits, even when the company can afford to pay them but chooses to reward the CEOs instead.
These are the people trying to support their families but are hanging on by a thread. These are people who have diligently made their mortgage payments every month only to see the value of their homes drop well below what they owe because big business, not big government, was jacking up the price of houses by giving loans to those who couldn’t afford them. These are the people who have seen their savings dwindle and their bills grow.
And then there are the people whom most of us take for granted. The people who are almost invisible but who do the jobs someone has to do. The people who do work hard at often unpleasant jobs with no respect. Apparently, I’m stupid for thinking we should appreciate people like the maids, the janitors, the nursing homes aids, etc. who don’t make much money and often receive no benefits. I’m stupid for thinking we should take some responsibility for ensuring these individuals get their basic needs met.
And I’m apparently a stupid failure because I can recognize how so many politicians are more beholden to the big dollars that can finance their campaigns than they are to the people they serve. As someone said to me this week, “Most politicians don’t like poor people.” Of course they don’t. Poor people don’t have any connections or dollars to make large campaign contributions. Neither do most middle-class Americans for that matter, but poor people make an especially easy target to vilify as being lazy and undeserving.
And because of my beliefs, my values and my career, I’m being called a stupid failure by those who think differently than I do.
Ironically, I’m wearing that label proudly.
After all, I’m pretty sure stupid failures with similar passion and beliefs are the people who make big changes in our world. We are, after all, too stupid to know any better.