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My husband and I recently spent eight months living below poverty level, and I expected to waltz right through that season with the kind of mental toughness that would make professional athletes jealous. I didn’t. But in the crash and burn that followed, I learned a lot.
I didn’t realize, until I was out of cash myself, that I had viewed the poor in such a condescending way. Only when I was forced to consider that people might disapprove of me because I had run out of money did I realize that I’d ingested a lot of lies about people without money.
My husband and I only made it out because we were fortunate enough to crash, scared and exhausted, into a safety net of friends and family before we found steady jobs. My respect for people who are forced to live without that support has grown enormously, and my prayer, as I consider who I want to be when I grow up, is usually that I’ll become the kind of person who can be counted on to show the same kindnesses that were shown to me when I needed it most.
Here are six important lessons I learned about poverty from being broke:
1. Stop treating the poor as fundamentally different from people you know.
I considered myself a generous and kind person, so I was surprised to find that my theology of poverty was actually horrific. During that time, I felt ashamed when sermons exhorted me to go to the poor and care for them where they were. The understanding was, of course, that serving the poor was essentially search and rescue; they certainly were not sitting in our pews. I was pretty sure I was an imposter, sitting among the wealthy and being the poor. I stopped listening to pledge drives and charity fundraisers on the radio and reading my newsletters from organizations who drilled wells and did lots of good. It’s not that I didn’t care – I just couldn’t handle not being able to give.
Everybody has something to give. It doesn’t have to be money.
2. Keep reaching out to people.
And while you’re at it, banish the phrase “hostess with the mostest” from your vernacular. As one who has contended for “host with the absolute least,” I feel justified in deciding that this is less than fair. If hospitality is based on frivolities and favors and our reputations are so delicate that they actually depend upon pastries, how will we summon any leftover energy for real life? How can I be a refuge for a friend if my primary concern is whether she’s impressed with my holiday décor?
Our home should be a safe haven for other people, not another place for them to feel inadequate and unwelcome. Besides, who wants to feel anything but happiness that your friends want to see you? If all you can serve is Swiss Miss in the mismatched mugs your parents pawned off on you in college, own it. Open up your home with the confidence that hospitality is about shared experience and closeness, not beating Martha Stewart in a game she’s already won. If you still feel inadequate, consider that Jesus, who ate with the poor and washed his friends’ feet, probably would feel at home drinking cheap cocoa at your ten-dollar yard sale table.
3. Learn to accept help.
In a culture that prizes self-sufficiency, we don’t do charity well. It’s become a truism that it’s better to give than to receive, but I think that’s partly because we think receiving is embarrassing.
When I was broke, I felt angry that God wouldn’t help me – and then ashamed when a friend would help me. Although I would have preferred to pay for my own needs (and help someone else), I believe now that he was moving his church, my family, to care for me. If we actually believe that giving is more blessed than receiving, then it follows that accepting gifts blesses people.
When the giver acts out of joy (not pity), and the receiver is genuinely grateful (and treated as an equal), it’s a beautiful transaction. This kind of giving acknowledges that the resources we call our own belong to God, who charged us with the task of looking out for each other. The gifts that made me feel most respected came from friends who said, “You’d do the same for me.” As much as I hated it, it was my turn to receive. I may not be able to repay the people who bailed me out, but you can bet that I’ll do my best to pay it forward.
4. Take care of yourself.
Self-care feels like a luxury when you’re broke, stressed, and rotating constantly between being at work and looking for more work. Sleeping, planning meals, and hunting for whole foods felt like inconveniences that kept me from scraping together money for rent. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t read, and certainly couldn’t create.
Since it’s a typical trait of Westerners to push ourselves beyond the healthy limits we were made to observe, I found a lot of resources on self-care. Unfortunately, most of them seemed to harbor the assumption that the reader could afford whole foods, gym memberships, health care, and unlimited, uninterrupted sleep. They weren’t writing for people forced to choose between doctor’s visits and food (we picked food).
Although I wish I could magically grant every poor, exhausted person peace, rest, and health, all I know to say is that it’s okay to feel like you’re falling apart. Criticizing yourself for wanting to run and hide will only accelerate the crash and burn. If you can find a food bank or a discounted health clinic, buy a multivitamin, or find the time to squeeze in a nap, that’s fantastic. If you can’t, don’t add it to the list of ways you think you’re failing.
Living like this is unnatural and scary, and you are being braver than a lot of people will ever know.
5. Don’t lose yourself.
On the rare occasion that I could read a book, write a few lines, or talk to friends who truly knew me, I felt like I hadn’t lost myself. I could breathe again knowing that I, the version of me who cared about more than getting by, still existed. I hadn’t disappeared into the stacks of unpaid bills.
The world is not kind to people who don’t manifest measurable signs of success, but there are things that they don’t see – ways that you can contribute that even you haven’t glimpsed yet. Hold tightly to the people who still see that in you. No matter how long you have to stay in this place, no matter how little your offering to the world seems, you matter, and the world is better with you in it.
You are not your net worth. Just like you were more than your report card, your talent on your sports team, and the kind of family you came from, you are more than the digits on your pay stub, the appraisal of the place you call home, and the color of your bottom line at the end of the month. Remember who you are.
6. Once you’ve hauled yourself out, remember how it felt.
Being broke creates awkward social situations. Since our time below poverty level occurred right after we got married, most people understandingly assumed that we were blissfully, generically young-and-married poor, not the kind of poor that comes with anxiety attacks and getting your debit card declined at the grocery store. When these people approached us to say, “Oh, I remember those days. Isn’t it fun?” I was stuck trying to answer with something both polite and honest, like, “I’m sure it was.”
I wish that I had written down all the things I claimed that I would do when I had a little money. If you find yourself starting sentences with the word “someday,” take it as a good sign, because – yes – there will be a day when all of this is over.
We said, “Someday we’ll go camping. Someday we’ll get a dog. Someday we’ll send a struggling couple on a badly needed vacation, or babysit for free, or ask a friend point-blank in the middle of winter if their heat is still on.” Figure out your someday, and make it something that will make your corner of the world a little safer and more beautiful.
Since Jesus spent three years wandering, homeless, and without a formal job, I believe now that success in life doesn’t always manifest itself in immediate and conventional ways. Although it’s important to embrace our own agency and bear responsibility for our choices, we need to do so remembering that tomorrow we might be the ones who need the help we’re hesitant to extend to someone else.
Emily Maust Wood is a freelance editor and fitness coach. She lives with her husband and shelter dog, collects old books and broken things, and worries about where her running shoes come from. Charmed by the idea of restoring an old home, she chronicles the adventure at lacorbeille.wordpress.com.
Publication date: October 6, 2014
Image courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com