I grew up poor.
I recognize, very well, that ‘poor’ is relative. I was ‘that kid’ at school, with the dirty/ripped/stained/badly sized clothing and free lunch card. My after school snacks were usually small cans of generic corn (which, by the way, I loved). And our house was always ‘broken’, from ceiling leaks for months at a time, to rusty brown tap water, to heavy plastic in place of a front door (until we could afford to repair or replace). It was nothing compared to the poverty in third world countries (of course it’s not). That being said, being poor in America can be isolating. Social distancing, I can tell you, has been around for a very long time.
I say this, not for sympathy, but for context (and empathy) for What Comes Next.
Here is What Comes Next:
My mother – as a single working parent with no college degree and minimal skills – was often exhausted, most likely clinically depressed, and (among other things) angry at the life she didn’t expect.
One of her coping mechanisms was her need to believe that certain groups of people were, in some way, rotten. While racism and anti-Semitism – or any blanket descriptors and/or treatment of any group – were all ‘bad’, disdain for those with up-kept houses or nice lawns or in-tact families was completely acceptable. ‘Those people’ were probably selfish/crooked/fake/stingy/snobby/mean (and more, dammit).
I didn’t get it.
We didn’t really know any of those people.
How did my mother know all these things about them?
I mean, we went to church!
We all sat in the same set of pews, every Sunday, listening to Father McCue say things like, ‘…all God’s children’ and professing that we were all in this together and we had to help one another. Not once, as far as I could remember, had he ever implied that people with two cars and an above ground pool were excluded.
If any of ‘them’ were lauded for doing something charitable or nice, my mother would roll her eyes and say, “Yeah, but…”
“He makes so much money anyway.”
“They’re just doing it for the attention.”
“He’s just doing it because he can write it off on his taxes.”
And in my head I’d be all, “Yeah, what a selfish man that Mr. X is. Jerk.” because, you know, you want to please your Mom, even if it’s just in your head.
But it never felt right.
We’re all in this together… but.
It really chaffed.
I wanted to kick the ‘but’ in the butt.
Over the years, it has become clear to me that my own childhood rebellion was a bit… different… from my peers’. Nevertheless, I can absolutely confirm that my tendency toward optimism and faith in others drove my mother absolutely nuts so… mission accomplished!
Fast forward to right now.
The other day, I was reading about two businessmen who came together to donate twenty million dollars… twenty million dollars… toward the battle against the coronavirus, COVID-19.
As I read the post, shared on Facebook, I was thinking, ‘Wow. That’s awesome.”
Then I read the very first comment.
And was thrown back to the kitchen of my childhood (complete with the chipped formica on the kitchen table, the torn, burnt orange chairs, and the haze from my mother’s skinny brown More cigarettes hanging in the air).
The very first comment read, “That’s nice, but it’s probably just what they saved with their tax cuts.”
It was as if someone scratched an old-fashioned, diamond-tipped needle all over a vinyl record.
If, in a time like this, on the one hand I’m saying ‘we’re all in this together’, and on the other I’m spending time classifying and/or belittling others’ contributions, what does that say about me?
It says I think my own giving, or status, or thinking, or being is somehow better, or more noble, or more virtuous than theirs. That’s what it says.
My father was a truck driver, driving eighteen wheelers back and forth across the country.
It’s kind of cool to see the appreciation that goes out to those men and women right now. We need them in those drivers’ seats big time. I’ve seen countless memes, all over social media, that laud them (along with factory workers and health care professionals and others). It’s great.
But I’ve also stumbled across sentiments that encourage and/or backstop some of our worst tendencies toward the magnification of ‘class’ as a dividing element.
‘When all this is over, let’s remember it was the janitors, truck drivers, nurses, grocery store clerks who saved us. Not the bankers and CEOs and billionaires.”
Um. That’s not true.
It’s going to take all of us.
Sure, those rich/perfect/holier-than-thou people contributed something… BUT.
We need – and are going to need more – money… for research among many other things.
We also need the factories and manufacturing plants re-tooled to make everything from ventilators to hand sanitizer.
And we’ll take any and all donated jets, to speed medical supplies to places that need them.
AND we need the truckers and nurses and store clerks and pharmacists and doctors and garbage collectors dressed like Spiderman (yep, I saw one!).
Some, without the others, won’t be enough.
How about this instead:
“When all this is over, we are going to realize that we all did what we could, to come together and save ourselves.“
Those who had the resources donated millions upon millions of dollars.
Those who had the resources also donated nickels and dimes and quarters.
Those who had the know-how checked us out at the supermarket.
Those who could drove to the grocery store for an elderly neighbor who could not.
Those who would created a list of local restaurants offering gift cards and/or curbside take out.
And the truckers stayed driving.
And the restaurants gave them free food.
And the nurses and doctors and pharmacists and lab workers and scientists pulled all-nighters.
And we gave and supported and lived and grieved and learned together.
Yes, even the spring breakers will learn.
If we continue to use the word ‘but’ to marginalize someone else’s giving…
If we continue the need to elevate one helper above another…
We not only miss the chance to say ‘we are all in this together’…
We miss the incredible opportunity to believe it.
Thanks for readin’.
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