All I Really Need To Know (I Learned Through Poverty)
In a social climate that is often focused on whether or not we should help the poor, and the 99% vs the 1%, I can’t help but reflect on my life – a life that has always, since the very day I was born, been a life of poverty.
I suppose it’s easy to see why so many people would pity me. On paper, it just doesn’t look good. You name a statistic, and I’m probably right there in them. High school dropout? Check. Teen parent? Check. Buried in debt from student loans, with no usable degree? Check. Grew up in poverty? Check. Still poor? Check. Bad credit? Check.
According to the statistics, I was doomed from day one.
But, then I look at that word: Doomed. And I realize that it implies something that, for me, just isn’t exactly true.
I mean, I suppose it would be true if everything worth value in the world revolved around money, so I can easily see why people who have it would look at me with pity, and even disdain. That is, if they look at me at all. It’s easy to get wrapped up in money, to the point that the very thought of a life without it seems insane. I get that.
But, the thing is, there are a lot of things that have come from my life of poverty. Good things. Things that have shaped me into the person I am right now. Things I would not change about myself, even if I could. I have been taught lessons I could not have otherwise learned, I have challenged myself in ways I never would have, and I have gained insights that would have been lost on me, had I lived a different life.
So, when I think about it, I don’t really see myself as the doomed one. Rather, I’m a little bit sad for the people who never learn those lessons, both about themselves, and the world.
With that, here are a few things I have learned through poverty:
Right now, at this very minute, there are dozens of things I know how to do, simply because, at some point, I had no choice but to learn. I can fix the plumbing under the sink, repair a computer, build a website, do minor repairs on a car, cut my own hair (and everyone else’s), repair holes in the walls, and install a stove hood, along with about a million other small tasks that people with more money than I have would contract out to a professional. Between Angie and I, there’s not a whole lot we need outside help with when it comes to fixing, repairing, or building things, and when we do, we can usually call on other poor people (friends or family) who have also learned the art of self-reliance. Not having a disposable income means doing it myself. If I can’t fix it (and no one in my circle of friends and family can), well, then it’s just not getting fixed. So the DIY stuff comes pretty quickly, if you want to keep enjoying the small pleasures in life, like internet and having a vehicle to get around in.
Let’s do some quick math.
844 – 500 – 135 – 30 – 25 – 35 – 200 – 40 = ?
If your answer was -121, then congratulations, you’ve just passed 3rd grade math. You’ve also gotten a glimpse at why I should not have a roof over my head, internet, a car, running water, electricity, sewage, or a phone. At least not all at once. On paper, it’s just not possible.
And yet, here I am, in my home, on the internet, with the lights on, a glass of water next to me, a toilet in the other room that flushes, and a phone that will hopefully allow me to get a job someday. How? Ingenuity, folks, plain and simple.
Knowing my resources and putting them to work for me, seeking out and doing odd jobs for friends and family when I can, along with the ever-fine-art of knowing how to juggle — bills, that is. I can prioritize bills in order of who will cut off service first, who will let me make payment arrangements, and which agencies are available to help me if it just can’t be done — and I can do it without spending hours on the phone or online, because I’ve been doing it since I was 17.
Now, I’m not saying it’s a great asset to know how behind I can get on my bills before I’m sitting in the dark or, worse, in my car because I’ve been evicted. If I had it my way, I would absolutely pay every single bill on time. But, my reality dictates a different tactic, and I have mastered it in a way that allows me to survive. Even when I shouldn’t.
The true value of people (and friendships).
To put it simply, the reason I surround myself with the people I do has nothing at all to do with what they can do for me, who their family is, what their past looks like, how much money they have, or whether we’re in the same economical class. It has everything in the world to do with the kind of people they are. They are good people. Honest people. Kind people. Generous people (and I’m not talking about money here). Loving people. AWESOME people. Truth be told, some do have money. A lot of them don’t. But they all have those crucial things in common, no matter what their bank statements say. I wouldn’t be friends with them if they didn’t. There is simply no room in my universe to place value on a person based on superficial criteria. And, as a result, I am surrounded by love, support, and genuine friendship. All the time.
How to actually be happy.
I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to insert a lecture here on the reasons money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s just too…cliche. What I will say is that being poor actively forces you to look for happiness where you might least expect it. One of the most memorable nights I can think of was spending an entire night wandering the streets of town with Angie, on foot because we had no car, just talking and laughing and being our usual silly selves. We ate breakfast in the rain under a shared umbrella before walking back to my house, and it was positively magical. Or the days we spent bicycling around town (again, no car) to run errands or just get out of the house for a while. I hate bicycling, but I still remember those days as wonderful. Why? Because I was happy.
I was (and am!) happy to have so much love in my life that literally anything we did was awesome and fun and special. I was happy to have a bicycle to get around on. I was happy to live close enough to a grocery store that we could make it work. I was happy to be forced to walk, holding hands, instead of drive, because it’s soul-lifting and romantic and just plain cute. I was happy that we had to split a beer when we went out on occasion, because we couldn’t afford two, but still had a good time.
Would I have been happier with a car? A lot of money at my disposal? Maybe, in a different way. But I would have missed out on some awesome moments. Moments I would not trade for all the world.
Anyone who has ever needed to choose between rent and electricity, or has had to drive uninsured because insurance falls too low on the priority list, or has had to stretch $20 over two full weeks, knows the stress I’m talking about. The kind of stress that keeps you up at night, staring at the ceiling, computing future money (fingers crossed) against shut-off notices. It’s a different kind of stress. It encompasses everything you do, every day, and there’s no end in sight. You walk around with this looming feeling of impending disaster hovering over you, and there’s no real solution in sight, so it just sits there, indefinitely. It’s the kind of stress that might kill a weaker soul, but not ours. Why?
Because when you’ve been poor long enough, you learn to deal with it. You have no choice. If you don’t, it will bury you alive. So you breathe in, breathe out, repeat. You take long baths. You go for walks. You play roller derby. You spend hours venting to a friend. You exercise. You sing bad karaoke. You knit or crochet or take pictures or write. You clean (if you’re one of those strange souls who actually finds cleaning therapeutic). Whatever you do, you find small ways to let the stress go, even if it’s just for a little while. You give yourself time to breathe and recover for a moment, and then you come back up again, fists flying, ready to fight your way out of this mess. One more time.
When every day is sink or swim, you learn to adapt…and swim.
Repeat after me:
“I am not my job (or lack of a job). I am not my bank account. I am not the car I drive. I am not the house I live in or the neighborhood I live in. I am not my education, or lack thereof. I am not the clothes I wear. I am not the things I own, or don’t own.
These are things, and I am not a thing. They have absolutely no bearing on my worth as a human, and to think otherwise is completely absurd.”
If there is one thing I am always acutely aware of, it’s that things can always be worse. In fact, they have been worse. This knowledge fuels my gratitude, constantly. As poor as I am, I still have a whole lot more than a lot of people do, and for that I am grateful. Every single day.
I know what it’s like to not know where the next meal will come from. I know what it’s like to wonder if you can stretch out that package of diapers just a few more days. I know what it’s like to make a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a quarter carton of milk last the rest of the week. I know what it’s like to not be able to go to a get-together, because you literally can’t afford it. I know these things, of course, because I’ve been there many times.
I also know what it’s like to have someone make dinner for me and my kids, pitch in on much-needed diapers, grab some groceries for me on their next trip to the supermarket and leave them on my doorstep, or offer to buy me coffee just so they can hang out with me. I have been on the receiving end of generosity more times than I can count, and, in turn, I give back as much as I can, when I can. I give my change away when someone asks for it on the street (and I don’t care what you have to say about it or them, so save it), I have made up the difference for a mother in line in front of me at the grocery store, given people rides, even when it’s out of my way, loaned money to friends and never asked for it back, and volunteered my time when it would help someone get through a crisis. And I didn’t do any of those things so I can pat myself on the back or be congratulated. I did them because I have been there and I know what it’s like. Sometimes, even a small favor can make a very big difference.
To me, those lessons are worth more than having all the money in the world. Even if I landed my dream job tomorrow and my financial horizon became bright and beautiful and carefree, I would treasure them and work every day of my life to make sure I never forget them. They are easily the most awesome parts of who I am as a person. Being poor is not easy and it’s not fun. It’s a lot of hard work and sleepless nights and constant stress, being poor, but, then again, that seems to be how the most beautiful things in life are forged.
So, who am I to complain?