Do you know what it feels like…to be poor?

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In answer to my own question: I don’t. I know what it feels like to be down on my luck, broke, struggling or “going through a rough patch”….what I don’t know is poverty as a way of life. But, I do know people who do.  Currently, I work as a case manager for a non-profit and the population I work with is homeless families. These people, though they are homeless by definition, have a roof over their heads, but, not much more. Most are single mothers and most have not had the opportunities for growth that most of us take for granted. I don’t want to make this post into being about Politics (though it certainly comes into play), so I will *try* to stay away from arguing why programs like mine are important from that angle. Instead, I will *try* to focus on the fact that compassion for others is key to my feeling useful.
I have a strong desire to do something in life that “matters”. I have been called a “bleeding heart” on more than one occasion,and quite frankly, I am ok with that. It has cost me many tears, much angst and more than a few trips to therapy, but, to me the alternative of not caring and of thinking of things as not being “my problem” is unthinkable. Does that mean I have infinite wells of compassion, that I never get frustrated or think that someone is f***ing up? No. Absolutely not, I get very frustrated…usually at myself for expecting that person to do what I thought they were capable of. And, that’s important, what *I* thought is not necessarily what they thought. Do I think that there are people who “milk” the system, yup, and, unfortunately, I know some of them, too. But, in my rather limited experience, but long held belief, many poor people do try to do better for themselves and their families and fail time and time again. In part, because of the way “the system” works, in part because  of poor decision- making, in part because of the way they were raised and sometimes in part because of bad luck.
For me compassion is not only something you feel, but, something you do. My beliefs  about this are pretty strong and though they come from the Bible, I am not religious. But, I do consider myself spiritual. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a very simple idea. Sometimes, I try to literally see myself standing in one of my clients shoes in order to understand how much pride they had to swallow in order to say “I am homeless and I need help”. If that were me, would I want compassion or judgement? This is not to say that I agree with every decision they make, because I don’t…but, my job is to guide them, not judge them. I mean, what if my case manager was my biggest support and not my husband? That would really suck.
I used to walk around thinking that no matter what I did it just wasn’t good enough. That I could always do more, and the truth is that I can. I can show more compassion every day. This will likely keep me busy in therapy for a while, because I have to admit that I have not yet found the balance between taking care of others and taking care of myself. But, I am starting to. I don’t take my client’s problems home with me anymore and I make a real effort to enjoy what I do have: a roof over my head, cars that are in good shape, food to eat, and, most importantly, love out the wazoo.
My husband’s prolonged unemployment and my father’s hospitalization have made me painfully aware of the fact that I can’t control everything. These two events have caused me to look at how I approach the people that I love and recognize that compassion for their situations will serve me so much more in the long road than anger or judgement. My husband chose to work in a field that he was wildly successful in for a long time and finding work in it once the recession hit was harder than either of us would have thought. There were times when I was angry (the anger is in large part related to politics and societal values), disappointed and scared, but, for the most part, I really tried to remind myself how he must feel.  I can’t control the economy, I can’t control societal values of bigger, better, more. But, I can control how I think about all of those things. I can honestly say that the things I value now are not the same things I valued two years ago. If anything positive came out of Paul’s unemployment is my admiration of his tenaciousness to learn new things to make money and the recognition that if we can make it through that, our commitment to each other is strong and real. As for my father’s illnesses, I can want him to be healthy, I can want him to be without pain, but, I can’t make that happen. It is very sad, but, it is true. I am powerless over Parkinson’s Disease and Lung Cancer. But, instead of wallowing in that sadness, I focus on how much closer this has brought us and how much it has proven to me what is important.
So….back to being poor. It isn’t about just the lack of money. It is about the lack of resources, both inner and outer. Inner resources to say: I will get through this, I just have to keep pushing. Outer resources like: agencies like the one I work for, organizations that provide outreach to those in need and individuals who say “I can help with that”. Every day we have the choice to give or to take.  Some people don’t have it in them to keep trying, some give up, some are “takers”. Some don’t think other people are their problem. But, I really think that most of what separates us is circumstance and that most of us could end up in situations that we didn’t expect despite our “plans”.  Did I “plan” to end up worried about what will happen to my clients if funding for programs like ours is cut? No..I planned to be financially secure, vacationing abroad every year, but, that was not in somebody else’s plans. God? The Universe? I don’t know…but, I do know that I felt very empty before I started working in human services (I was a drug & alcohol counselor prior to my current job). Getting a hug from one of my teenage clients when I worked at  TODAY, Inc. or seeing one of my current clients get an A on a test or pass their driver’s exam at 29 means so much more to me than a new Coach bag or the latest piece of technology.
For me, the truth is that compassion does more for me more than it does the people (and animals) that I have the pleasure of interacting with. I get to feel like what I did today mattered, that I tried to make someone feel a little bit better or made a dog’s tail wag or a cat purr. Please know that I fail at this. Every day. I am impatient…I get frustrated. I still want a new Coach bag. I desperately want to get out of the work event I volunteered for next weekend.
But, I try and because of that, I get to see the good in everything around me….when I let myself believe that I made a “good enough” effort.
If you are interested, check out http://www.bchg.org. This is where I work…we do good things 🙂

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