I used to be poor. Really, I was. Sometimes in reading others’ stories of growing up in the working class, I’ll see something like, “We were poor, but as kids we never really knew that!” All I can think when I see that is, well, then you were never poor. We were poor for real. I’ve been dependent on food that came out of dumpsters. I’ve slept outdoors when there was no other place for me to sleep. There’s really no missing being poor. You have to notice.
Most of this happened as a child or adolescent; by the time I was old enough to look after myself, I did. I’m not poor anymore. I have a decent job, good health insurance, and a house that’s paid for. I remember poverty, though. I remember what it felt like to have no idea where the next meal would come from, or where I would sleep that night. Or the next, or the one after that.
I still feel a little whisper of dissociation whenever I read anything (which is almost everything written about poverty) that casts the poor as “other.” No, I think, that’s not someone else; that’s me. It’s why I have a hard time with “voluntary simplicity.” It’s not voluntary when it’s been beaten in with a stick. I grow and store food, shop at thrift stores, take public transportation, follow a budget, throw away as little as possible and generally cut corners wherever I can because it’s the hip, green, voluntarily-simple thing to do. I do it because these things cost less money, and the more money I can put away, the less it will be likely that I will need to sleep outside and eat from the trash ever, ever again.
In school, I got angry when I first saw Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I interpreted it as making the claim that only once you had security in your basic physical needs, such as food and shelter, could you be capable of thinking about self-fulfillment, morality and spirituality. I knew better from experience. I suspect that the concept was taught to me poorly and that Maslow didn’t actually claim that self-actualization is, like Santa Claus, only for the rich, but that’s how it looked to me.
I never knew a more spiritual group, on the whole, than the other homeless and generally delinquent people around me. I mentioned this in a comment on the Executive Pagan’s blog, and it’s something that I’ve been meaning to explore a little more. I think that as outsiders, it was easier for us to accept things that people living mainstream lives would dismiss or never notice in the first place.
In this country, being truly poor means being an outsider. Not just in the daily circumstances of life, but in every single bit of national and social discourse. There are countless messages sent constantly to remind you that being poor puts you outside the realm of the “normal people.” You probably don’t notice these because in all likelihood, you’ve never been poor. (No, having to live on ramen noodles while working your way through college doesn’t count. I did that too for a while but there’s a difference between having to scrimp in order to eat and not being able to eat at all. It’s profound.) It’s similar to any other type of privilege; you can only see it if you don’t have it.
Once you’re on the outside, everything looks different. It’s hard for me to articulate because I’ve never been on the inside. I think at this point, I’m an outsider for life. I do not see myself as part of the system. I work within it, but that’s purely a survival technique; my career is not my “real life.” I do not feel connected to the world where people care about things like fashion and TV shows and what kind of car they drive. It’s not just that I don’t care about these things myself, but that caring about them seems as absurd to me as I suppose fairies might seem to someone else. It’s not my world and it doesn’t seem like the real world at all. Coming from that place, it’s not so difficult to accept non-mainstream perspectives. When the mainstream looks like the most ridiculous, unstable and tenuous fantasy world, gods and fairies seem pretty substantial.
I know that this dream world will not last, because I know it’s not real. Food doesn’t come from grocery stores; debt, as the financial world is finding out right about now, cannot create wealth; happiness does not come from consumer goods. Freedom is not a car. The gods and spirits, on the other hand, have always been with us. It’s poverty that has shown me reality, because it’s poverty that put me into the real world beyond houses and jobs and finances and shopping. I think Maslow’s pyramid might be upside down. I think we start out wanting to be self-actualized, even when we have no place to sleep and no food to eat. We start from there and work our way up to comfort and security. I see people who have been comfortable all of their lives, who have never been forced outside of that zone of media-hypnotized, well-fed safety, and they are not the ones who reach for fulfillment. It’s us who have been pushed outside the walls who look around for something more.