A wonderful friend posted this on FB: “When you see someone, envision them without their cars, jobs, education, degrees, careers, wealth, houses, and see them for who they really are deep down inside them; to see if they can still stand at all without their labels, titles, and possessions they crutch upon. If they are still standing, then they are a better, stronger person than the next guy!!” It got me thinking…
I always deeply appreciated my mother’s sense of equality. There was no such thing as color, status, who’s-who, numbers in the bank, what someone wore, etc… She never, ever voiced this sentiment, it just oozed from her. And I always internalized this quality and strove to adopt it into my life. My dad voiced that he deeply appreciated his sister’s sense of equality as well.
My first awareness of the internal strive toward conquering pride ironically revolved around cars. I didn’t realize this at the time, but in the church I was raised, it was essential to drive a nice car. The newer the better. Cars were “the” thing. It was never verbalized per se, but the car you drove was the unspoken message of how well you had been blessed by God in your life.
I was given the wonderful opportunity to ride in cars that I felt humiliated in. I was a teenager at the time, so self-consciousness was at an all-time high. I came from the viewpoint of an upper-middle class family who had extremely high status within the church I was raised. I was well known, admired by the adults within the church system, respected by all (or at least the high majority), and comfortable in all areas of my material life.
There were a number of times where I had the opportunity to hop into a family van where there were multiple children and whose families exhibited extreme poverty. The van often made random noises and was quite ugly for the general population. A few times, the women and young girls in the family had put on their mantillas (lacy head coverings that were reportedly once used for Catholic women as they prayed) for church long before arrival to the church itself. I sat there on the seat and wanted to be unseen forever.
There was one family I rode with who were absolutely humiliated by how poor they were. They were open about how difficult things were for them financially. I was amazed at how hilarious they were. They were born comedians. They were extremely good looking. I realized as I rode with them that I could care less about the care they drove or their poverty level. I also realized I hurt deeply for them because I realized their humor was a cover for their humiliation. They felt less-than and there was absolutely no reason. However, their perception of being less-than were huge hinderances for them on so many, many levels. I would love to know how they are doing now. Especially the oldest daughter. She actually was able to fix her own VW car – and not just change the oil.
The families I rode with in these cases were perceived to have less money than many of the others in the church I was raised and had a significant lesser status within the church. They also had a larger number of kids, which also instigates negative treatment even though they preach otherwise. Each time I was able to spend with these families, I was grateful. So very, very grateful. And, each time, I was able to practice shedding all my internal dialogues of perceptions – of them and of myself both from within myself as well as the perceived internal dialogue of fellow church members. I was also able to begin to process the why’s and wherefores.
I was able to shed these stereotypes and human behaviors because I noticed my internal reaction and immediately realized that I had to change this perception and feeling. I knew deep within that it is absolutely ridiculous to feel different than someone who has less or is perceived less than. As I got to know more and more people who had less and less, the more it was apparent. People truly can be wonderful people with wonderful stories no matter social status or class of wealth. You just have to get to know them to find out.
As a middle schooler, I wanted very badly to be a friend with this fellow girl, but I was chicken. She was everything that screamed “eew.” She was overweight, wore horrid looking clothing, had very poor self-esteem, and was a laughing stock by fellow students. Typical middle school. I was a laughing stock as well, but was determined to be in denial. I also wanted to preserve any sort of dignity I had left. So I told her “I want to be her friend, but don’t tell anyone else.” What a thing to say. I never truly attempted to be her friend. However, I immediately noticed when the land of her family property was sold, apartments were built on it, and more. She is now likely far from her originally perceived poverty level. I never ever forgot that life lesson. What you see now is not at all what you see in the future.
Then, my first vehicles I drove were perfect. I absolutely loved this green 70s Chevy pickup with a white top. It was a beater stick shift. But I loved it. One of the church guys came up to me and said “I can’t believe you’re driving this thing!” He was super proud of me. I was confused why he would say that. I loved it. Then I realized why he said it. And I felt proud. Super proud. I made my goal. I intended to be able to not only be a passenger in a humiliating vehicle, but actually regularly drive a vehicle that was a beater – and I didn’t mind.
I was able to test this further by driving what I referred to as a “Mexican car.” It was a beautifully restored Impala. The guys who worked on it poured a ton of love into it. I’m certain of it. In my minds eye I could envision them working on that car. They were classic nerds. I absolutely admired their nerdiness. From a very far distance. They would never know my admiration of all they went through as nerdy guys and all that was associated with it and them and their family within that church system. They had to have gone through hell. But, they had given this car to my dad and he didn’t know what to do with it. I’m sure it was a gift given in love and admiration and he was totally clueless.
And so I drove this “Mexican car.” A car that assisted me to overcome my angst towards the Mexican population of the area I was in. They were the true underdogs of Gresham, OR at the time. The Mexicans I encountered at the time were by far and wide field workers. So, to me, from my vantage point at the time, they had the same status as a modern day slave. My pride didn’t want to associate myself with this class of people, and so I challenged myself to overcome this. And I did – through my “Mexican car” (and another story for another time).
And, I proved to myself that this car did indeed conquer what was needed to be conquered when I drove another really humiliatingly ugly “Grandma car” to Omaha for nursing school. It was definitely – and literally – a grandma car. When I drove it, I realized I really didn’t care. A car has no insight into how much money is in the bank, what status you are, who you are as a person. Nothing. Nodda. It was driven for about 10 months until it was hijacked (yet another story for another time).
As I was growing up, I was very grateful for every opportunity I had to ride in humiliatingly ugly vehicles that could create all kind of embarrassment. I was so very grateful I could ride in all different types of vehicles – brand new leather seats as well as cloth along with hole-ridden plastic seats and floor boards – with people from all walks of life. I learned to appreciate the use of feces-stained towels, staying the night in family homes who were barely scraping by. I was able to thoroughly learn to love the people themselves, who had less – rather, were perceived to have less – than I, just as much as I was able to learn to love those who had far more. Each time I was able to shed less and less of my self-consciousness, feelings of humiliation, and let go more and more of pride. We are all equal. Each and every one of us. A car and status are just “things.” Money is that – paper and/or black numbers that sometimes turn red. They say nothing, do nothing helpful, and only hinder everyone involved – both those who are snubbing the person as well as the one feeling snubbed.
Continuing my quest of understanding “different,” as soon as I had the opportunity, I wanted to learn what it was like for the people on the streets. I had never been exposed to extreme poverty on that level. However, as I think of it, there was a woman who attended the church I was raised who was from the streets due to schizophrenia – two extreme shame-ridden, nonverbally/nonwritten excommunicatable “sins” that was again nonverbal knowledge within the church. She came into the church much later than when my questioning began, but it further encouraged my quest to learn and understand more. So, I waited until I could volunteer for street people, and jumped at the first opportunity I had.
Ironically, at the same time, I had the opportunity to experience poverty for the first time myself. But, I was still unaware of just how similar we were. I still considered myself vastly different. I was living off a credit card. I had just escaped my dad who had completely, 100% freaked me out. (Again, another similarity with the street youth I was volunteering for.) I still didn’t know I was essentially homeless, the exact same thing as “them.” I had no clue. I was just living in clueless autopilot. But, I was still wanting to know, to understand what it was like to live in poverty from their eyes.
Why are people on the streets? Is it something God did to them? Is it something they did to themselves? Did they truly sin somehow in some way? Did they truly “ask for it”? Did they do something truly bad some way some how? Did they truly do something or make some wrong choice along the way that was their own fault, their own wrong-doing? Are they truly bad people? Were the kids disobedient? Is that why they are on the streets? Do they deserve to be shunned and treated with so much disrespect? Who truly is at fault?
Interestingly enough, I learned that homelessness and poverty is very rarely truly their fault. Yes, sometimes bad things happen because of the choices that were made on an individual level. However, usually there are many more underlying reasons to the core problem. What you see – almost always – is surface stuff. People are on the streets in America due to societal perceptions, societal norms, family problems, how our economic and political systems are structured, extremely poor health care management, and more. Very, very little has to do with choices made by that particular person.
Given the right questions, the right circumstances, the right people, the right structures in place, absolutely no American citizen would be living on the streets. Nor would they be living in poverty. We in America are going down the shit-hole. Just look at our roads. Just look at the numbers of people suffering from medical conditions, who are one paycheck from being on the streets themselves.
Sarah Lazare reports that nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and are unable to afford a disaster. She links to Assets and Opportunities Scorecard of CFED who reports that “nearly half (44%) of households in the United States are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they have less than three months’ worth of savings—conservatively measured as $5,887 for a family of four, or three times monthly income at the poverty level… Who are the liquid asset poor? The makeup of this financially vulnerable group confounds the stereotypes. One quarter (25%) of middle class households (those earning $56,113 to $91,356 annually) have less than three months of savings. The majority of the liquid asset poor are white (59%) and employed (89%), and nearly half (48%) have at least some college. Among liquid asset poor families with children, roughly half (51%) are headed by two parents.”
That is pretty scary. One out of every four people working in professional job settings (doctors, lawyers, nurses, business officials…) have maybe one or two month’s salary for a one income earner in their savings account at any given time – if that. But how long does it take to get a new job?
Aspire Solutions writes “If you were in that initial early bird “premier” group of referred candidates, you just endured 2 months and 3 days between the time you submitted your resume, and the time they came back with an offer letter. And if you were like the other 99% of candidates and submitted your application in response to the initial job posting from day one, you endured just about 2 months from application to offer.” But that’s only application to starting the job. Once you start the job, you might have to wait a month or longer to get the paycheck depending on how often you get paid. Thankfully more organizations seem to be paying every two weeks instead of once or twice a month. But you still have to wait for the payday cycle to kick in.
However, that’s assuming you get the very first job you apply for the very first day you are no longer employed. So, how long does it take to get a job? Ben Casselman reports “More than 2.5 million Americans have been out of work for a year or more. That’s down from more than 4.5 million in 2010… But while there are significant differences between the employed and the unemployed, there is very little difference between those who have been out of work for more than a year and those who have been jobless for shorter periods.” There are 43.5 million people living in poverty in the U.S. where “in 2013, the official poverty rate was 14.5 percent, down from 15.0 percent in 2012. This was the first decrease in the poverty rate since 2006.” This means that even more than 1 out of every 7 people you know of everyday people living within the United States are at the food bank and many many more should be. They might even be living with a roof over their head solely through HUD housing.
Thus, if you have 7 friends, there is a high likelihood that you have a friend who cannot afford to eat, and may even be homeless, but you have absolutely no idea. Or, you might know and not care. Or, you might know and not comprehend. Or, you might know but not know what to do about it. Or, you might know – yet not.
It is extremely difficult to work our way up from the red. It takes money to make money.
I never realized that I should ask myself those questions from the light of homelessness, but I was still asking those questions from the vantage point of being a daughter of an upper middle class family, a father of my daughter and all the significance attached to that, and a member of the church I was raised. I did not at all perceive myself to be homeless. God was providing through my overdrafting my bank account and it going into my credit card. God would provide, always would. I had beautiful furniture, everything I needed.
Yes, there were rats in the neighbor’s apartment. And, yes there were ants in my apartment and the refrigerator was not clean so I just didn’t bring any food home nor did I use the kitchen. I loved that apartment. I loved the structure, the location. I felt safe and hidden. It was owned by a friend of the Oregon Master’s Swim Team instructor, so I felt connected with someone I considered to be a friend I could trust (yet who I truly didn’t know). Ironically, I was in the slums and had no clue. I had heard rumors, but all I knew was that it was in transition as Adidas was coming into the area and that it was the next up-and-coming place to live.
And, so here I was, eating one meal a day – if that – thanks to intentionally overdrafting my debit card, and volunteering to understand homelessness and the people associated with poverty. As I write this, I’m taking a moment to pause. As I’m doing so, I’m seeing a whole ton of irony on multiple levels, from multiple stances, and from different time frames within my life.
I’m just now recovering from health problems due to myriad of sources and reasons, have $1 in my wallet and have no idea what is in my checking account – anywhere from 0.50 to $25 — maybe, have bills up to wazoo from survival, am renting a room thanks to a tax refund and some charity organization, have things in storage that I might not see again, have a car that I hate but has been wonderful due to its level of gas consumption and the dignity associated with its brand name and gives me the opportunity to feel like I have a life, and am – once again – living completely on faith. I have multiple degrees, a brain on my head, a professional license, and more. And, once again, I see myself completely different as someone on the streets. I do not see myself as a Charity case. I refuse.
I had no desire to admit this internally, externally – nor especially on this blog. But, it’s important to share. It’s important because we truly are absolutely no different from each other. The only thing we’re different is our story, our perceptions towards life, our attitudes towards each other, and how we perceive the world around us. That is the only – absolutely only – difference between the trillionaire and the person living on the street or should be living on the street.
I learned early on that it’s dangerous to ask why questions. I once asked my dad “Why is it wrong to sponsor a child? Why is it wrong to be a missionary in another country [for an organization outside of the church system I was raised]?” He got red in the face, leaned over me, got super close yet his body was far enough away where he could lean over, pointed his finger in my face right close to my eyes and nose, and said, “You!. Are on your way out the door.”
For those of you who don’t understand the significance of this statement, it meant the same as everything associated with status and difference. It meant alienation, labeling, judgement. It meant being “the other.” It meant shame, humiliation. It meant being distanced from everyone around you who you once thought truly cared. It meant you had a black mark on you for life that you could never, ever get off. You were dirt. Absolute dirt. It was wrong to associate yourself with someone less than you. In doing so, you became – even worse than – “the other.”
Now, if you take a step back, look at Mother Teresa. She lived in absolute poverty – partially by choice, partially not – and yet served the poor. She is known far and wide as a very beautiful person. Look at Donald Trump. He has a history of waffling back and forth from destitution to having and owning and being much more than anyone ever needs and most everyone aspires to. Look at Abraham Lincoln. He has a history of a myriad of perceived failure. In yet, he is a wonderful person. There are many, many more stories like these.
“But,” you say….
Where’s the but?? Why the “but”? They are people. Beautiful people. They are and were human. Just like you and I. They are absolutely no different from you and I. The only difference is know-how, learning by experience, and never giving up. With Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln, they cared about their fellow being. I hope Donald Trump does – and always has. I do not know. Maybe his TV show gave some insights and perspectives he hadn’t considered or thought of before. I kind of think it made him a better person through it. I would love to know.
The thing about me is that I care. I truly care. I care about each and every person in the world. I bust my butt off to be a better person in all aspects of my life. I bust my butt off to find answers, to understand, to know. This is why I ask questions. Questions that have become detrimental from one perspective and amazingly wonderful from another.
Questions, life, and circumstances has a way of laughing at you. As I write this blog, I encourage you to never ask questions to understand, to “know,” in a way where you will be able to understand intimately on a personal level. That is, unless you truly do want to know and that is the only way you can truly understand your human fellow, truly begin to comprehend the “why’s” and “wherefores” of our existence, the world and universe around us, how our body works, how life works, how things work, etc. If at all possible, I encourage you to ask to understand your question – especially your human fellow – without actually having to literally stand in his or her shoes or experiencing crisis, mayhem, ill health, and more as the result.
Eckhart Tolle suggests that life circumstances – who you are professionally, the balance of your bank account, the balance of your investments or the condition of the stock market – is not a problem until you start looking into the future. It’s all a story, they are all externals, “mind created stories.” Who you are in the essence, The Now, the timeless space, is who you truly are. The absolute importance is understanding the essence of who you are which has nothing at all to do with life circumstances.
It’s a fun concept. It’s so wonderful to consider. It creates a viewpoint that enables someone to truly live without worry. To live as they truly are. To be who they truly are. To see each other as we truly are.
“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are” – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.
“Never judge a book by its cover.” What you see on the surface is not what you get down below. I encourage you. Truly get to know your fellow human. Get to know your neighbor, church member, the stranger sitting next to you, the “bum” on the street. Is there someone you are afraid of? or judge? or despise? or hate? Get to know them. Ask “why am I afraid?” “Why do I feel the way I do?” Test your hypothesis, your judgment. See if it’s truly legit.
Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. There is much to learn from why questions. It can solve a whole lot of our problems actually. If we asked more why questions, if we truly got to know the person we thought were “the other,” we’d solve a whole ton of problems on many, many levels.
So… back to my friend’s Facebook post… “When you see someone…” see who they truly are from the inside. Discard the labels, perceptions, and more. There are beautiful people sitting there on the streets, needing assistance from charity organizations, greeting you as you enter WalMart, shopping next to you at the grocery store, working with or for you at your workplace, driving the Mercedes or Jaguar, living in a mansion… There are also very ugly people in all those places as well.
“Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Every life is a story. I’d love to know yours. Let’s learn and grow together. Let’s help each other succeed. Let’s help each other find fulfillment and true meaning in life. Let’s help each other find true health, happiness, and joy. By doing so, we can also help each other find a way to put money in that damn bank account. It makes life easier that way for all of us. If we do these things, our world would be a beautiful place.
And, as I write this, I realize the keys: Ask questions, Listen to gain awareness and understanding, apply true Love with Nonjudgement to truly gain awareness and understanding, apply Knowledge, Awareness, and Understanding with Teamwork toward Action.
We need each other. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from, what your life story is. I need you and you need me.