Sunday, August 19, 2012

"The Poor"

In my previous entry, I made frequent reference to "the poor". And that's a term I actually hate (I just didn't have any other way to phrase it!). I think it's a false construct saddled with wrong assumptions.

Growing up as a sheltered middle-class suburbanite, the word summoned visions of grimy unpleasant unhappiness. "The Poor" was a vaguely-understood scary "Other". But then, as I gained life experience, I noticed a few things:

1. "Poor" is relative
It doesn't matter how much money you have; browse real estate prices in Manhattan. Or contemplate sending kids to college without loans...or paying for business class, to avoid the indignities of coach. Even if you can somehow afford such things, they will not feel smoothly, affably attainable.

Those aren't Mr. Howell-isms ("Butlers are nearly unaffordable these days!"). Some people truly need to live in Manhattan, e.g. for work. Or have kids who can't afford loans. Or have long legs. So even "rich" people get the same trembly stomach I once felt when forced to take a toll bridge, replace a failing appliance, or pay for antibiotics. And, in keeping with the relativism, bear in mind that there are millions who'd take even those trifling last three as loathsomely Mr. Howell-ish ("la-di-da, such a burden for you to buck up for fancy medicine while my malnourished children and I fend off tsetse flies!").

The adjective "poorer" has meaning. The noun form "poor", much less so. Money limitations scale infinitely up and down. There's no point at which they're transcended. "Poor" is wherever your head bumps the bar.

2. You are in the 1%...globally
The poorest American is unthinkably rich compared to 99% of historic humanity. Consider these questions: How many of your siblings died due to lack of medical care? How much taller would you be if you hadn't been malnourished as a child? Do you have sufficient free time to get depressed or neurotic? Will you perform back-breaking labor til the day you die?

When an American feels poor - i.e. fosters resentment toward those with even bigger apartments and even nicer cars - billions scoff.

3. Less Stuff Doesn't Make You Less Happy
I was taught (by everything from Dickens novels to Jimmy Breslin) to envision The Poor as miserable. But after spending time in the Third World (and some sketchy portions of the First World), I've learned that's completely wrong. Here's how the mistake comes about:

Americans equate pain with suffering. We do so because pain is so unfamiliar to us that we can't help but respond with anguish. People with real problems learn to draw subtler distinctions. They can endure painful circumstance without triggering an adolescent grimace because they never expected everything to go just so in the first place. As a result, they display qualities seldom seen in America, like equanimity and empathy. It's easier to dance and love with a full heart when you're not stuck in your head nursing neurotic fixations re: the various peas lurking beneath your mattresses. An essential truth is understood: that happiness stems from wanting what you get, rather than getting what you want.

If you don't believe it, read a fantastic book by a writer who spent years visiting small, third world villages and discovering that such places, with little material bounty, appear to be the only places where humans feel - and act - fully human: "A World of Villages", by Brian M. Schwartz, is available used from for next to nothing. It would have been a best-seller if the book market wasn't glutted at the time of its publication with titles (none as profound or as readable) from backpacking world travelers.

Or, just as effective: start watching people who are wealthier than you (in real life, not in movies), and try to gauge how many seem happier than you. That's a gigantic "tell", yet one of the most oft-missed truisms of the human experience.

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