Here at VeganReader.com, we spend a lot of our time working to give helpful advice for improving your living skills and taking care of your environment. Today, I’m not going to offer tips or lessons. Rather, I just want to give you some encouragement.
I’ve created this small piece of artwork and am writing this essay during the time that is known in the Christian calender as The Three Hours of Good Friday. These hours symbolize the time Jesus of Nazareth hung on the cross before dying. As the historians and scholars of that time, some 2000 years ago, recorded in the compilation of texts that were to become known in later times as The Bible, a carpenter’s son was given a sentence of capital punishment for disturbing the peace and preaching radical ideas to the poor and rich alike. This man, whose real name was likely something like Yeshua, was executed in the gruesome manner of his times, and this moment in history is still remembered today on the Friday before Easter. It is a time for prayer, mourning and quiet reflection. It is a time with potential to bring a space of peace into our world.
This year, my own thoughts have turned toward the group of people whom have historically been termed The Poor. In thousands of languages, hundreds of nations, there have always been The Poor. What do you see in your mind when you think of poor people? Outstretched hands? Hungry faces? Tattered clothing? Perhaps your mind conjures up a glimpse of famine-stricken villages in Africa, crowded cities in India, ghettos in Los Angeles. The truth is, poor people cannot be encapsulated in a single image of a single people or place, because the poor are the majority and always have been. If you could hold the globe in your hand and give it a spin, you would see that all parts of the planet are peopled mostly with individuals living without enough or with just barely enough in the way of food, shelter and clothing to sustain life with reasonable adequacy. In other words, if you are living in a situation of poverty or near-poverty, you are the norm.
What Does Poverty Look Like?
There are many different ways of being poor. In the few rural, warm regions of the planet where people need very little in the way of shelter and clothing to survive, poverty tends to surround the issue of food. The few people who have been able to maintain a hunting and gathering lifestyle face hunger when game is scarce or inclement weather destroys a season of fruits or vegetation. In industrialized regions of the world, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, poverty has a different look. Being cut off from the ability to hunt, gather or farm because all land is privately owned, and being unable to access money can mean both starvation and homelessness. Homelessness is a serious issue in Northern areas because lack of appropriate clothing and shelter can mean freezing to death in winter.
Additionally, poverty in industrialized nations like The United States carries with it an onus of shame and despair because capitalist societies place value only on productive individuals, and the image of ‘a good life’ that is promoted in countries like ours is not simply one of having enough to eat and wear and a warm place to live. The acquisition of possessions far beyond basic needs is promoted as the difference between happiness and misery, and in certain cases, owning possessions like cars is essential in many areas of the country where towns have been laid out so that stores, doctors, places of worship and other important resources are located beyond the walking distance of many individuals.
In the Western World, it may be more psychologically stressful to be poor because all media and societal norms so heavily promote ideals of wealth that are beyond the reach of the majority. Only with credit cards can most people in the United States even hope to purchase a home. We can’t actually afford this basic of life, because the derangement of our system has decided to make housing prices beyond the reach of most hard working people in modern times. Any adult person who cannot claim a place to live is definitely, to my mind, living in genuine poverty.
Changing Times In Our Country
You don’t need this article to inform you of what is going on in the United States right now – the massive unemployment, lost housing, crumbling schools and public services, hunger and want. This nation is in terrible shape, and that’s really the bottom line. Two adult men in my own family, both of them skilled, able, caring people are now unemployed and desperately looking for work. Chances are, you or someone close to you is facing poverty right now and facing all of the fears that go with it. How can this be happening to us, to me, you are asking.
I come from a poor family, and have continued to live in what is deemed relative poverty as an adult. Like you, perhaps, I don’t own anything of high monetary value. I don’t own a home. I don’t have health insurance. My clothes are few. Making a big splash of money spending means buying a new book – but mostly, I go to the library. I wanted to buy my husband a new desk this year for his birthday, to replace the one he has which is falling apart, but which is totally necessary to the work he does at a computer to earn a living. I looked for the least expensive desk I could find. When we paid the bills, we found we couldn’t afford this gift. Instead, we had to promise each other that when our ship comes in (yes, we’re still waiting by the shore for that) we will get that desk for him. He needs new glasses first. There have been times when our cupboards had just enough food in them for one last meager meal while we waited for money to come. This was certainly a good inspiration to begin farming as a security against hunger, but even with the blessed inputs of the food we can grow, we are living from month to month, scraping to get by, deeply in debt for medical expenses due to my poor health and not yet seeing a way to reach out for more security or more distance between our family and poverty.
If my story sounds at all like yours, please take a moment for reflection with me.
When You Are Poor
When you are poor, you are not being singled out of humanity for some un-heard of, unspeakable affliction. You are in the majority. You are experiencing what most of the world’s people experience, and what most of the world’s people have experienced since the creation of the structure we call ‘civilization’. Civilization is often spoken of in glowing terms, but for most people, it means that many are poor and many work far more than they should have to in order to survive so that a few individuals at the top of the structure can live a life of ease. Unless you come from a long tradition of wealth, your people have likely always been poor and the experience of your ancestors is very similar to yours in terms of not knowing where tomorrow’s bread will come from. The thing we call ‘civilization’ has been very good for the rich, but not so sustaining for the rest of society.
It’s interesting to think about the fact that Western scholars generally won’t refer to Northern Native American societies as ‘civilizations’. Yes, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans to the south with their complex class structures and vast cities…those are civilizations, but not the Hidatsa, the Lakota, the Haudenosaunee of the North. In some ways, as a woman of mixed Native/European blood, I have found this to be somewhat patronizing, but there’s a kernel of truth as well.
When Sitting Bull first saw caucasian towns and cities, he marveled at the fact that white people could know how to amass such wealth, but be so backward about distributing it amongst their people. When Crazy Horse’s people faced hunger after the invasion, he simply wouldn’t eat because he couldn’t stand to do this while others in his tribe didn’t have enough. The ethics of the majority of American Indian tribes dictated that the role of men, of chiefs, of respected people was to ensure that all of the people were fed, clothed and sheltered. In other words, they were the exact opposite of the kings, prime ministers, presidents and dictators who lead lives of extreme wealth whilst the people they are meant to govern or serve go without. So, in some sense, it’s true that societies like those of the Native Americans were not civilizations. They had a very different idea of justice and happiness.
When you are poor, it gives you interesting insights into the way your own society functions. You see the outcomes of a moral code that is satisfied with some people having more than they need while others don’t have enough. You see the huge weight of people that hangs at the bottom of the balance of capitalism, making capitalism possible. You may look around, and start to better understand the company you are in.
When you are poor, you stand in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and his workers’ movement, demanding justice for the impoverished and abused laborers who made possible the ease of American life in the mid-20th century. You stand in solidarity with Marin Luther King Jr. who, at the moment of his assassination, was organizing a poor peoples movement that would non-violently storm the gates of Washington D.C. to demand an audience with the rich and mighty. You stand in solidarity with Mother Theresa, Saint Francis, Dorothy Day and others who dedicated their lives to working amongst the poor. You stand in solidarity with a small, humble man named Mohandas K. Gandhi who organized the poor of India so successfully that they changed their whole nation’s own government and destiny. When you are poor, you stand in solidarity with that young Jewish man, Jesus, who was born into poverty and who spent his life amongst the poor, the outcast and the forgotten. Perhaps it sounds more romantic to be on an intimate footing with King Louis XVI, Rockefeller and Bill Gates, but really, I think you are in better company when you are standing with the poor.
First and Last
“The last will be first, and the first, last.” This is a quote from the part of the Bible which is called The Gospel According To Matthew. By the time this collection of writing was penned, apparently about a century after the death of Jesus, a long tradition of beliefs about humility, service and the place of the poor already existed. Both ancient Jewish and Christian writings repeatedly refer to this concept of the lowest and the least having the greater ultimate honor than the rich and powerful. Whether you follow one of the major world religions, a smaller or personal set of spiritual beliefs or have no real settled faith at all, it may interest you to know that for thousands of years, deep thinkers have thought of the poor in a rather special way.
I think this is an especially good idea for modern Americans to reflect on just now, when more and more of us are coming to grips with the specter of poverty. Sometimes, I feel frightened when I look at my family’s financial situation and I often feel depressed when I reckon that two hard-working adults like my husband and myself, approaching the age of forty, do not see any hope of ever being able to get a little home for ourselves in the land where we live. We feel poorer than the birds who have their nests, the bears who have their dens. But then I remember…then I get a sense of the company I am in. I get a sense of all of these men and women around the globe who are sharing my exact same concerns and feelings. Somewhere in Nepal, there is a young man who feels just like I do. Somewhere in Poland, there is an old woman who feels just as I do. Somewhere in Ecuador, there is a family who feels like mine does, standing in a doorway, looking out at our few stalks of corn and hoping that good weather and good luck will put food on the table for all of us.
One of the most paralyzing things about fear is that we often feel alone in it. We feel ourselves singled out, spotlighted, isolated in our troubles. When it comes to being poor, how good it is to suddenly realize how utterly not alone we are. We may be in trouble, we may be in need, but we are the world’s people. We are what’s really happening for the most part on the Earth. We are typical and normal.
Like you, I will keep working to find whatever way I can to see that my family is as well-cared for as it can be. Like you, I long for release from the stress and worry of lack. But while I’m here, while you’re here, facing this, know that we are together in this. Be encouraged.