On solidarity

I wrote a blog post the other day about being an “ally,” and while I shared it with my friend network, I had a lot of reservations about anyone beyond my friends encountering it. Then a friend whom I really respect posted a blog but also expressed similar reservations. (Note: I’ve removed my previous post because it never reached a point of feeling OK or very authentic to me. This one feels more like I’m standing naked…weary, and naked…in front of an audience. And I’m OK with that risk.)

This evening I’ve been thinking about why this is such difficult territory and wondering how to navigate the complexities of how those of us who have and are aware of our social privilege show up … or don’t show up … for our friends and family who experience oppression.

I’m not writing this as a defense or justification for myself or others, but simply to try to articulate some thoughts in written form. One of the biggest difficulties in figuring out whether or not to show up is that there are huge risks involved.

There’s the risk that saying something will cause harm. And there’s the risk that staying silent will cause harm. There’s also the risk that either choice will cause harm, and that no matter what we do, someone might get hurt.

And maybe that’s the reality of being a person who has social privilege: no matter what you do, someone might get hurt. If that’s the case, then I wonder if the best we can hope for is harm reduction, weighing the pros and cons of what to do, then taking the risk of trying to do the “least bad” thing while knowing that the system operates in such a way that pain and harm might be inevitable.

I’m speaking in vague terms, and yet again I find myself wanting to offer all sorts of disclaimers and qualifiers for what I’m putting out here. For example, I’m using a lot of “I” statements because I don’t want my words to be taken as speaking for anyone other than myself. As in what I wrote the other day, I want to scream over and over again, “I’m not an authority!” And yet, maybe when it comes to these difficult matters I am at least an authority on myself, if nothing else.

What I really hope comes out of all the ongoing discussions about how we engage in the world is that the things we do (or don’t do) might help push us toward the dismantling of systems of oppression that continue to cause harm. (Maybe that’s Pollyanna-ish?)

I could link to a bunch of “how to” articles with tips for being an ally (I’ve actually compiled a reading list, which I’ve also removed from my blog site). Instead, maybe I should be asking my friends who have social privilege to do their own work. Maybe we can do some of this work together. But as many others have said in other places, please don’t ask those who are oppressed to do your work for you. That sort of thing reinforces the very systems we’re trying to dismantle.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering what I mean by “do your own work,” maybe a good place to start is by listening and learning. This takes on many different forms. Perhaps the most important is learning from the words and writings of those who have experienced oppression, rather than looking to those of us with race, class, and other privilege to summarize, take credit for, and profit from those ideas (which is why I’m not going to be more specific…I am not the authority…look elsewhere).

I almost defaulted back into academic list-making mode, but then I deleted what was going to be the rest of this paragraph. If you truly want to learn from anti-oppression perspectives, I’m sure you’ll figure out a way. There are plenty of resources out there, and there are spaces in which deep discussions can take place without asking or demanding that those who have been targets of discrimination and violence “hold space” for you.

If you’re not interested in exploring any of this, well, I’m not sure what to say, except that I can only hope you’ll become interested. There’s too much at stake for us to resort to apathy. And yes, there are those out there who want to cling to these damaging systems because there’s a perception that some are actually benefiting from it (although any such perception is ultimately an illusion).

Back to the question about whether to show up or not show up, particularly when it comes to events like rallies and other activities that occur in public spaces, again maybe it’s a matter of listening and learning.

I can only speak for me when it comes to this (so here’s more of the “I” statements): if I hear or sense indications that I’m wanted, I show up if I can. If I hear or sense indications that I’m not wanted, I stay away. If I show up and hear or sense that I’m not wanted, I leave. I apologize if that’s needed. And I try not to project my own fears, anxieties, or excuses onto others when determining where and how I should show up versus where and how I should not show up.

I try to be mindful that as an ally (why does that word feel so awkward? Is there a better word?), my presence isn’t about me. I’m not there to seek praise or affirmation. I’m not there to tell about “that one time when someone hurt me” or to spend hours declaring “I feel your pain.” I’m not there to act like my own anger about oppression is the same as the anger of those who experience oppression directly.

I’m not there to appropriate or capitalize on another culture’s or group’s traditions, experiences, artistic expressions, or material objects. And I’m not there to focus on ways that I as a woman have experienced discrimination, as I’m also aware that my skin is still white, I’m still straight, and I’m still able-bodied. If I’m present, it’s to support the movement, not to fulfill some ego-driven need or desire.

Over the weekend I chose to attend several events to show solidarity for those experiencing racial oppression. I made several new friends, and through the beginnings of conversations that are to be continued, I feel like I might start to learn more about the particular racial dynamics of the overwhelmingly white community where I recently moved. And it’s certainly an issue that’s been ignored and dismissed for long enough by most (although certainly not all) of the town.

If it’s appropriate, there might be instances where I can use my privilege in support of the movement. This doesn’t mean I’m intending to swoop in and play the uninvited savior (or even to act as if anyone needs “rescuing” in the first place…ugh…). But in the past, if I’ve been asked to do a particular task as an advocate, I try to honor that if it seems like it won’t cause harm to those I’m in solidarity with.

Sometimes it’s a matter of making a donation to an organization. Or leveraging other resources. Or giving my time. Or listening. Or speaking. Or writing. Sometimes it’s honoring a request *not* to show up.

And sometimes it involves learning about how I might have caused harm, and what I can do better. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) I have to be prepared for that risk, and I’m not willing to use ego-defensiveness as an excuse about how to show up … or not show up … or both.

I can see Jesus in your eyes

I’ve been thinking a lot about something a disabled homeless elder said to me today in the course of our half-hour conversation on a busy downtown sidewalk: “I can see Jesus in your eyes.”

I posted the statement on Facebook in spite of my hesitation, as I don’t want my interactions to come across as “Hey, look at me and how great I am,” nor am I soliciting compliments or accolades. The reason I decided to post his comment was because I felt he needed to be heard.

Apples and rocks near the creek

But as I contemplate his kind words, I want to break down what he said because I think there are several important sub-themes in that short sentence.

1) “I can see.” He is conscious of his surroundings. He is paying attention. His disability does not render him completely unaware of what is happening around him. In his particular case, his vision is functioning, but even if he had been speaking metaphorically, the point is that he notices people.

Owl eyes

2) “I can see Jesus.” In the context of our broader conversation, what I heard was that this man has faith that his circumstances will get better, and he hasn’t given up on life. As a severely burned amputee with chronic related health problems, his daily struggles are sometimes overwhelming.

Some branches of Christianity might treat his declaration of faith as an evangelical victory—as if his life here on planet earth is merely a long-suffering prologue—but I didn’t experience his statement as being focused on doctrine-specific rules of “how to get into heaven.” Rather, I sensed that he felt a connection to something larger than himself that could sustain him during particularly difficult times.

3) “I can see Jesus in your eyes.” There have been times when I’ve encountered people who seem to view Christianity as some sort of game to see who can “convert” the most “unbelievers.” Sometimes this takes the form of long testimonials describing journeys of darkness into salvation. Perhaps more often, attempts at conversion involve telling others what they should believe and what they should (and should not) do in order to be saved from eternal damnation.

Socialize with compassion, kindness, and grace

But religious doctrine aside, I experience “seeing Jesus in others” when I meet people who are kind and generous to those who are typically judged, condemned, out-cast, or marginalized. Those kindhearted souls aren’t always religious devotees (and, in fact, there have been times when I’ve encountered self-professed religious devotees who are also incredibly cruel, judgmental, and hypocritical).

Just as Jesus challenged those who valued doctrinal rules over compassion, we’re called to follow that example by being generous and welcoming of those who have been socially rejected. I don’t see this as some sort of sacrifice or noble gesture on my part because, quite honestly, those who have been condemned or scapegoated by society tend to be the people I most easily connect with, perhaps because I also know what it feels like to be treated cruelly. Furthermore, I believe this type of compassion transcends any specific religion and can be an aspiration for us all.

Heart-shaped leaf

4) “I can see … your eyes.” Moving back to a simpler observation, this man reminded me that he could see me seeing him. Have you ever felt too uncomfortable to look someone directly in the eye? Imagine what it is like to be out on a street corner, holding a sign that asks for money, and know that people don’t want to look at you. I’ll go into this in greater depth in a follow-up blog, but for now, the point is that even people who are used to being ignored can still be aware of the fact that they are indeed being ignored.

Just because we turn and look the other way to avoid seeing something (or someone) that makes us uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean our actions go unnoticed. And when we do take the time to look someone in the eye, that other person might actually notice. The mutual recognition of visibility can be a reassurance that, yes, our presence on this planet does indeed have meaning.

Judge not?

People are sometimes surprised when I say that I am incredibly judgmental. I probably don’t come across that way very often because I have worked very hard to integrate this aspect of my personality, rather than repress it and pretend that it doesn’t exist. I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach a point where my judgmental tendencies completely go away, but what I try to do is be aware of when I am looking at things from a place of judgment.

If I notice myself veering in that direction, I sit with it as if I am sitting with a friend and having a conversation. I ask myself what it is that bothers me, and then I try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. I find that I’m less reactive and less likely to hold onto that initial impulse. I am able to release it more easily and move into a space of compassion and perhaps even a deeper understanding of the other person’s experience.

The beauty of life is to experience yourself

This morning I was thinking about how I’m more likely to be judgmental when I’m tired and when I’m in stressful situations. I was frustrated with a driver who was hovering between two lanes at a stoplight, to the point that I couldn’t get into the left turn lane. My initial thought: “What is wrong with this person? Doesn’t anyone know how to drive anymore?”

Then I thought about the times when I haven’t been the world’s greatest driver, and I reminded myself that others have probably had similar thoughts about me at some point or another. As I breathed more deeply, I imagined what types of distractions might be occupying the driver’s mind. Maybe she had just heard some bad news, or perhaps she was also tired and busy.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know why she was blocking me. All I needed to do was focus on my own driving and personal safety, and let go of whatever anger and judgment I was holding inside of me. With the next exhale, I let it go, and I restored my sense of personal eace in the world.

Open your heart

I’ve found this practice to be incredibly beneficial in relating to others, and it’s also helped me to be less critical of myself. When I was younger, I hated my tendency to judge others, but as I’ve started to make peace with it, I find that I am more patient, compassionate, and willing to extend grace to others than I would be otherwise.

Because I regularly practice shifting from judgment to compassion in fleeting everyday situations, I’m also able to be less reactive when someone does something that hurts me or someone I love (to varying degrees of success, for sure). If I pretended like this part of myself (what is referred to as “the shadow” in Jungian terms) didn’t exist, I’d have a more difficult time moving beyond those impulses. Maybe that’s the real lesson after all…

How far would you go?

If your child were in immediate danger, how far would you go to protect your child from that danger? Would you risk your own life? Would you be willing to break the law?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that they would respond with violence (legally or illegally) if someone tried to hurt their children. There are even t-shirts and bumper stickers marketed toward this demographic, including this slogan: “Guns don’t kill people. Dads with pretty daughters do.”

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There is usually some truth behind humorous statements, and while I’m not an advocate of violence, I can understand the emotions that would motivate such a view. Parents want to whatever they can to protect their children. It’s painful to witness a child being hurt (even if the hurt is due to cruel words), or to live in the aftermath of destruction.

To shift gears, how far would you go to protect someone else’s children? Would you risk your own life? Would you be willing to break the law?

Perhaps the answers to these questions are dependent on whose children I’m talking about. Would you go further to intervene if the kids were nieces or nephews? Or your best friend’s children? Or the students in your classroom at school? Or your next door neighbor?

What if the child was someone you didn’t know? Would that make a difference? Where would you draw the line for when to intervene versus when to walk away? Is there a point when you would say “Not my problem”?

This is a moral decision that we’re being asked to make at this very moment, as children are crossing the border into the U.S. to escape rape, gun violence, and even death.

Church leaders are standing up and advocating on behalf of these children, even when it means going to jail, as is the case with a United Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic nun who were among those arrested during a protest rally outside of the White House today.

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There are those who quickly say “Not my problem.” They push the moral dilemma aside, arguing that it’s up to other countries to address the violence that’s endangering children (while ignoring the role that the U.S. has played in creating a huge demand for illegal drugs, with drug cartels contributing significantly to the violence that children are trying to escape…although even that has been twisted into false accusations that cartels are using children to smuggle drugs across the border and create “future terrorists”…I’ve even had people tell me that I’m “ignorant” and “misinformed” because I don’t buy into the paranoia).

As I’m sitting here typing this blog post, my stomach is in knots, and I’m fighting back tears. I try so hard to understand other people’s motivations, but no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot understand the callousness of those who believe that we should send these children back into dangerous environments. The best that I can conclude is that fear of the unknown must be a major underlying factor of these angry reactions.

I’m looking at a photograph posted by the Dallas Morning News, and all I see is hatred. Yesterday it was pointed out that the expression on these women’s faces is eerily similar to the expressions on the faces of those who protested the desegregation of schools in the 1950s.

Before you continue reading, please take a moment to click on the links to these photos. I’m not posting the pictures directly here because they are copyrighted, but I do think it’s important to see the images.

Protest in Dallas
School desegregation protest
School desegregation protest 2

I’ve heard the argument that there are no parallels between desegregation and our immigration situation, but such an argument fails to acknowledge that the current situation is indeed a moral crisis, just as segregation was.

“But they’re breaking the law. It’s not fair.” (I’ve heard this said by people who have a known history of disregarding “inconvenient” laws, such as traffic speed limits and blood alcohol levels that were established to minimize the risk of fatal car accidents.)

“We can’t afford to…” (Would these same people sacrifice their own children’s physical safety due to financial limitations?)

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Beyond the obvious inconsistency of those who point a finger at others while not admitting to their own history of breaking laws and their expectations that double standards be applied when for their own personal benefit, I’d like to return to the questions that I posed at the beginning of this post:

If your child were in immediate danger, how far would you go to protect your child from that danger? Would you risk your own life? Would you be willing to break the law?

I’ve traveled far and wide, not to mention interacted extensively here at home with people from all over the world, and I can say with certainty that parents are the same everywhere: they want to protect their children. They will do whatever they can to ensure their children’s safety and security. If a child is being raped, terrorized by gang violence, or otherwise threatened, parents are going to intervene. That’s what parents sign up for when they have children.

My conclusion is not due to some sort of ignorance or naïveté on my part. I’m not getting my information radio and TV talk show commentators who react from the safety of their corporate offices and security alarmed mansions, without ever having engaged in conversations with parents around the world. I’m speaking from over two decades of first-hand global travel-based knowledge.

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I can assure you that these are very real situations. Last year, I listened in the hall outside of a Congressional hearing in D.C. to a child being interviewed by a TV news station, recounting the trauma of living in constant fear, with tears streaming down her face. After the interview was over, I asked her if I could give her a hug. We stood there hugging, and all I could think about was that I wanted to do what I could to make her life safer and more innocent, the same way that I would try to do for every single child I’ve ever encountered.

The question becomes: what are we going to do? 

We have several options:

1) Do what we can to help protect these children;

2) Dismiss the problem and pretend that these children are not actually in danger;

3) Even worse: blame these children for the situation they’re in, or try to rationalize fears and lack of empathy by accusing the children of smuggling drugs or being terrorists;

4) Say “It’s not my problem” and knowingly send children back into violent situations.

What would you do if it were your own child, or someone you loved?

When will we finally be willing to extend love and show compassion for every single person in this world, as we’re called to do?

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Silly Break

I’m way behind on blogging. Travel stuff on the way, and also part two of Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame. In the meantime, here is a silly break…a change of pace from the super-serious things I’ve been writing about lately.

As a child, I hated the color of my hair. It’s not fire-engine red, but reddish enough to where my hair was the source of endless teasing in a small town where my hair color was unusual. And given that I didn’t grow up near Dublin (the only place I’ve ever visited where I actually blended in), red hair wasn’t exactly common.

Me 3rd grade

Oh how I hated my hair. And yes, my fashion style hasn’t changed much over the years. I own a strikingly similar shirt now.

I also had a particularly vivid imagination throughout my childhood. Still do, in fact. At one point when I was feeling particularly self-conscious about my hair, I concocted a plan to rid myself of the redheaded curse. OK, so my original plan was to dye my hair black, but my mom vetoed my request. For some strange reason, she didn’t think that an 8-year old should go to such extremes, and her unconditional love for me made it impossible for her to understand why I hated my hair so much.

Then I came up with an even better plan. One that didn’t involve chemicals. (Or so I thought.) I’m not sure exactly how I came up with this idea, but I decided that I wanted to shave my head. But no, my vision wasn’t as simple as me walking around with no hair. I wanted to replace my hair with a whipped cream wig. For some reason, I seem to remember a book that included a picture of a man wearing a very full (and rather ridiculous-looking) shaving cream beard. My imagination ran with the concept….

Me with a beard

Not quite a shaving cream beard, but close…

The conversation went something like this.

Me: “I hate my hair. I want to shave it all off.”
Mom: “No, Cynthia, you can’t shave your head.”
Me: “Why not?”
Mom: “You’re not old enough to use a razor.”
Me: “You could do it.”
Mom: “I would have to shave it every few days, and we don’t have time for that.”
Me: “But I want to shave my head!!!!!”
Mom: “No.”
Me: “I could wear a whipped cream wig.”
Mom: “What?”
Me: “Instead of hair. I could have a wig. But made of whipped cream.”
Mom: “It would melt and run down your face.”
Me: “No, because I could eat it and carry Reddi-Whip with me to put more on.”
Mom: “Cynthia, we can’t afford Reddi-Whip. And we certainly can’t afford to buy a can a day.”
Me: “But it would be so much better than my hair.”
Mom: “If you think you get made fun of for your hair now, you would be picked on even more if you wore whipped cream on my head.”
Me: “Everyone likes whipped cream.”
Mom: “Not when it’s melting all over you in the hot Texas sun.”
Me: “Pleeeeaaaaassssseeeeee?????”
Mom: “No. You’ll thank me for this when you’re older.”

Whipped cream wig

I’m already wearing a cat costume. Why not add a whipped cream wig?

In hindsight, I guess that I can indeed thank her for not allowing me to fulfill all my childhood fantasies. Because, yeah, I would have looked rather silly wearing a whipped-cream wig. Probably…

P.S. I made the mistake of doing a Google search for “whipped cream wig” in hopes of finding an image to include in this blog post. Now I wish that my mom could have had a little talk with Katy Perry before she made her “California Gurls” video. Yikes! For a more whimsical picture (but I’m not posting it on this page because I assume it’s copyrighted), try this one.

Requiem for a Dog

Holly Beard came into the world in 1998, although it would be another year-and-a-half before she would meet her human “forever mommy” Cynthia. She quickly endeared herself to others, becoming the first dog ever allowed to sleep inside the home of Cynthia’s maternal grandmother.

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Holly wearing her Halloween-themed “boo bandana” (one of the very few items of clothing she would cooperate with)

OK, so in reality, after a long night of Holly yelping in the indoor back porch, the conversation actually went something like this:

“Cynthia, where does Holly usually sleep?”
“At the foot of my bed. I know…I tried to get her to sleep in the bathroom or on the floor, but she whined all night and I didn’t want to wake up the neighbors.”
“Well, why don’t we just let her do that from now on.”

Holly is confused about the weather blog

Occasionally she would get dressed up, but not for long. Here she is displaying her confusion about an unexpected Texas snowstorm in March.

Holly, ever the iconoclast, proceeded to challenge every established rule of social decorum, and became a constant companion to her mommy, both at home and on the road. Alas, one place Holly was not welcome: Chuck E. Cheese. A sweet then 3-year-old named Iris struggled to understand why Holly was not allowed to attend her birthday party, as Holly was every bit as much of a friend as the other guests.

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Holly’s adventuresome spirit sometimes landed her in predicaments, such as the time that she sprained her leg while jumping up onto the couch. Even while in a bandage, she threw her mommy for a loop by hopping up a flight of stairs and then intentionally entering a neighbor’s apartment. She always considered the entire building to be her extended home, and the neighbors usually obliged.

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A bandaged leg couldn’t slow her down

Although she had the appearance of a luxurious Yorkshire terrier, Holly was a rather scrappy little dog. She wasn’t a fan of costumes, bows, or froufrou haircuts (in spite of being subjected to them every once in a while for charity fundraisers). Her typical scrappy look occasionally led others to eye her with suspicion, including the running joke that she was merely an oversized rat. Joking aside, Holly’s energetic presence could intimidate the fiercest of creatures, and goats in particular would take great pains to avoid Holly’s licks of affection (aka, kisses). Even a Great Dane named Lady was known to hide out of reach whenever Holly visited.

She never intended any harm, and in spite of her breed’s rodent hunting nature, she rarely had the desire to eat anything without explicit permission. One incident with chocolate was enough to discourage her from exotic cuisine. She preferred her fancy dog treats, sometimes using bury them with air, like an invisibility cloak. She didn’t quite understand how her mommy could find these buried treasures, and would then move the treats to more remote locations where it might take several months for them to be discovered.

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In November of 2007, Holly embarked upon her most important job as caretaker and guardian of Cynthia’s mother Linda. Holly had always loved Linda and would stand by the front door staring at the lower corner whenever she heard Linda’s name, assuming that a visit was imminent. When Linda became disabled, Holly took the responsibility of guard dog very seriously and would cuddle up in the at-home hospital bed with her special friend. When Linda passed away in 2011, Holly cried for several hours after watching the medical equipment be hauled away. Even the two rescue kittens who boarded with Holly for the next month couldn’t console her. Life had changed, and not for the better.

Holly Napping with Mom Blog 2

Holly slowed down in her later years, and eventually she stopped trying to lick every creature in sight (cats, ducklings, turtles, goats, even a deer…and in a rather gruesome episode, a dead mouse whom Holly attempted to resuscitate). Her lightning-speed games of chase (or, as she preferred, “I see you, and I’m going to get you!”) were replaced by increasingly long naps.

She accepted with grace that she could no longer jump on furniture or go on lengthy walks and jogs, and when her cataracts prevented her from seeing clearly, she seemed content with the fact that she would occasionally bump into things. Her declining ability to hear didn’t bother her too much, as she was less likely to be disturbed by sudden sounds that had in the past caused her to bark. As her hair thinned, she welcomed the warmth of her doggie Snuggie, and she contentedly curled up next to her mommy during the major ice storm that arrived a few short weeks before she passed.

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Holly was preceded in death by her beloved Linda, as well as two of Cynthia’s grandparents and a cherished aunt. She also lamented the loss of Grandpa’s dog Trixie, even though Trixie never quite knew what to make of Holly. She leaves behind her mommy Cynthia, aunt Sheryl, doggie cousin Penelope, and a huge number of friends whom she loved dearly. Dr. Wuensche also held a special place in her heart for all the loving care he provided over the 13-1/2 years as her veterinarian.

Holly Me Portrait blog

Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

I’ve been mulling on this topic for a few days. It’s so complex that it could easily turn into a book, but I’m going to try to be semi-brief (well, in two parts, with this as part 1). Plenty of others have written about the complex factors that contribute to long-term poverty, so I’m not going to rehash those discussions. What I want to focus on is how our society shames and judges people who are poor.

A lot of the shaming comes in the form of puritanical super-virtuousness. The comment section of a recent blog post by emergent Christian author Rachel Held Evans was quickly filled with armchair poverty “experts” whose remarks were far removed from Jesus’ teachings that I wondered if we read from the same Bible.

This poster reads (and I cringe) "Welfare: You work hard so they don't have to!"

I hesitated about posting this pic, but I wanted to illustrate the stereotypes about welfare and poverty.

Here is an example from the blog comment section: “The poor fall into two categories – those without knowledge and the lazy.” During my childhood, my mother typically worked at least three jobs and still struggled at times to make ends meet. The blog reader’s declarative statement resembled childhood messages that I absorbed from the culture around me.

But generalizations sound quite different when we attach them to specific people. A rephrasing of the above comment might go like this: “Your mother’s struggles revealed that she fell into one of two categories – she lacked knowledge or she was lazy.”

Now, I have indeed encountered those who would have been so brazen as to insult my mother directly…or any other random person who has had financial difficulties. In general, though, a lot of these blanket statements are generic, and when pressed, the person doing the judging would most likely backtrack if I were to call out that kind of insult with a reminder that most of us know and love people who have faced financial challenges.

"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." James Baldwin

This leads to another type of comment (here, I’m paraphrasing things I’ve heard frequently): “Your mother [or someone else we personally know] was different. She was doing the best she could, unlike those other lazy people.” My internal response: “Really? Are you absolutely sure about that? How do you know whether or not others were trying just as hard as she was?”

And then a typical followup from the armchair poverty expert: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone. She is always bragging about how she doesn’t have to work and can just live off the government.” (It’s usually a woman, thanks to the 1980s “welfare queen” myth.)

iPhone screen

There’s a lot to unpack in that kind of statement, but again, others have tackled the sociological aspects of this topic much better than I can here. A couple of things in the “I know this person who…” argument stand out to me, though. For one thing, there is an assumption that if one person in a particular situation is exhibiting a particular behavior (such as “taking advantage” of the system), it must be the norm, even when there is a lack of evidence to support such a questionable logical leap.

But I wonder what would happen if this same type of rhetorical formula were used in a different context. It might go something like this: “I know this person who speeds on the highway, but he has a radar detector and texts while driving. He is always bragging about how he never gets tickets and how he’d rather pay for a ticket than slow down anyway.” For whatever reason, speeding (which regularly endangers a whole lot of people’s lives, including children) is considered more socially acceptable behavior and far less dangerous than the possibility that someone might collect food stamps without actively looking for a job.

Another thought also comes to mind with the “I know this person who…” statement. Maybe the anecdotal woman really wishes that she could find a decent-paying job, and she is embarrassed that she can’t. There are times when we as humans might not want to admit to our own disappointments, so we minimize or dismiss our feelings in order to save face.

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It can be as simple as saying, “Well, I was going to break up with him anyway,” when the reality is that we weren’t expecting to get dumped. Or perhaps after getting passed over for a promotion, it’s justified with “I didn’t want the extra workload,” when in fact we were excitedly anticipating the challenge of new responsibilities. Or for women who have had no luck conceiving: “I love the freedom of not having kids,” when we secretly picked out baby names years ago.

Vulnerability is difficult stuff. We don’t always handle it well, and a lot of us will go to great lengths to avoid letting others know how we really feel about things that are emotionally painful. This is especially true about poverty. When someone says, “Poor people are lazy” (or “parasites” or “bums” or “stupid” or any number of other negative words that are often associated with poverty), maybe it’s just easier not to admit how difficult poverty really is.

When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us. Taken a step further, when these attitudes are taught in church, or articulated by those who claim to be Christian, this is what might be heard (whether or not it’s intended): “God does not approve of you. Poverty is your punishment.”

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But poverty is not a punishment. Regardless of what our worldly, materialistic consumer-driven society might tell us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame can drive us to do all sorts of destructive things to ourselves (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), and in my experience, I haven’t found a single beneficial value in shaming others. I’m going to continue this topic in a future post, but for now, I want to end with a message to the many friends I have who are struggling right now: I believe in your goodness. You matter. And no matter how difficult life might seem at times, I’m cheering you on.