Monthly Archives: November 2012

A pedagogy of the poor (part I)

I’ve an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine about the role of the church vs. the state when it comes to the poor.  Neither of us belong at all in the category ‘poor’–she is of an upper middle class white family who owns property, and has a graduate level education; I am a single middle class woman with graduate level education and a full time job. We tend to talk past each other when the subject of poverty arises, both getting defensive.  We’ve argued our own sides to the point of offending each other, then back off cautiously as neither of us wants to ruin a friendship.  At times I suspect we are closer in our opinions than we imagine, but I doubt we’ll ever completely see eye to eye on it.  I wonder if my status somehow as a TCK (third culture kid), particularly as one who grew up in the third world, however, colors how I understand the poor, as well as the potential role of government and church.

The fundamental divide, it seems, between her perspective and mine (and if she reads this, and I’m incorrect, she should correct me and help me better understand) is that she tends to think of the poor as ‘individuals in need of help’.  I’m uncertain if it is economic status, educational privilege, or mere ‘Americanism’ which posits her in the position of being the benevolent agent in these scenarios.  When she describes government subsidies and/or welfare, she regales me with stories of abuse: instances where entitlement is assumed and laziness is writ large.  I am unclear as to why it is that I react to her descriptions and responses with defense: as if I’m certain it is against me or my family that she’s making accusations or judgments.  Perhaps it is because I spent my childhood accepting handouts and gifts as missionaries, forever relying upon the proverbial kindness of strangers.

What must be equally accounted for is the fact that she accuses me of idealizing the poor. Whereas I hear her complaints against abuse accompanied by a tone of indignation (“the poor are stealing from me”), she hears my defense of the poor as coming through rose-colored lenses (a noble people, struggling in a noble fight).  It is likely the case that I do tend to idealize the poor, although I try to guard against it.  You be the judge.

John Steinbeck purportedly wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Indeed, it seems that the American dream is alive and well–upward mobility is assumed to be an option, indeed assumed to be a good, and a failure to be poor (our value, intelligence, morals, etc. based on our economic status).  Not only is it assumed that we can move up, but it is our responsibility to move up. Kurt Vonnegut commented: “It is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” ”

I’m unwilling, however, to assume that the American middle class is everyone’s ideal.  The underpaid working class seems to be caricatured into either  comic ‘redneck’ or as merely unwilling-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps ‘lazy’ (or some mixture of both). Might it be the case that for those able-bodied poor who never shift into the ranks of ‘middle class’, the drummers’ cadence marches them to other ends?  Or that they never imagined their world to be otherwise? Or….

I believe the poor have many gifts for those of us who aren’t poor, but only if we are willing to have our eyes opened to critique.  What we learn is more often about ourselves than it is about the poor (much in the same way that African-Americans can teach me what it means to be white, because I function within the haze of privilege, oblivious to the graces and opportunities my skin color affords me.)  These are a people with feet in both worlds (knowing what it is like to function on very limited resources, but also living within the ubiquitous aspirations and standards of the wealthy.)  The media spreads the gospel of the upper middle class, wherein needs are not only met but excess is normative.  We are thus trained to accumulate, to stuff our selves and our homes (this coming from an overweight woman just days after thanksgiving!), regardless of economic status or class.

 

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Being in the crossroad…

With my cat, all routes pass through my lap. She will walk 20 ft out of her way to walk across me, sometimes returning to the very spot in which she started.    If I’m asleep, she will jump on the bed, walk the full length of my body, leap off, and trot to the bathroom sink to get a drink out of the tap. I am a feline thoroughfare.

Pausing for inspection on the way for a drink of water.

Pausing for inspection on the way for a drink of water.

It would seem that in the realm of feline philosophy, it really indeed is all about the journey.

Dreaming as a TCK…

I’m haunted lately by a recurring dream after which I wake in a panic, heart pounding, sweaty, and often in tears.  Details of the dreams vary from time to time, but there are always core elements which remain the same:  I am on my way on a trip… there are problems with packing or the commute to the airport or something, such that I am worried I’ll miss my flight… I always manage to arrive in just enough time to catch the flight… only to discover as I encounter the TSA agent in the security queue that my passport expired THE DAY BEFORE MY TRIP.  From there the dream deviates between fellow travelers who are frustrated at me, extreme disappointment at not being able to take the trip, anger by someone I’m supposed to meet ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is?), or being somehow granted ‘grace’ by the security personnel, without a game plan on how in the world I’m going to return.  ACK!!

Why do I keep having anxiety dreams about expired passports?

Why do I keep having anxiety dreams about expired passports?

American sociologist David C. Pollock developed the following description for third culture kids: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”  TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their passport country.

So what does it mean to dream that your passport has expired?  That I’m feeling stuck?

I’ve felt troubled over the years with my 3-4 year itch: the restlessness I’ve felt upon spending just a few short years with any given group of people or in any given location.  I’ve determined to fight this restlessness and make a home for myself.  I’ve now lived through this 4 times during my 12 years of living in Chicago.  I want a community; a place with some history; a place to call home.  I’ve made an effort to make this home for me. I’ve turned down jobs in other cities and other countries, and settled into a church community.  I’ve established long-term friendships, and allowed myself to have emotional ties.

So what does it mean that I keep dreaming about expired passports?

On corporate disappearances…

Today my company ‘announced’ layoffs.  I’ve been with the company 6+ years and have weathered the storm many times–often enough that I begin to recognize the routine; the pattern of corporate demise.  Last year I took the following photo as an homage to those victims who disappeared.  I am reminded of the disappearances which occurred in S. America during the 1980s–where folks simply vanished, with no bodies to mourn, no closure.  Some were walked out on ceremony.  Others simply called at home and told not to come in.  What few artifacts left at their desks are packed up in boxes and mailed to them.

Corporate Mausoleum

Corporate Mausoleum

Corporate Masoleum

Without bodies to mourn, these artifacts are all that is left.

In corporate America, those left behind don’t even have a list of who all was let go (due to some strange bit of legalese). We are finding out slowly as emails bounce back, and phone calls don’t get answered, desks are empty.  Key players on my projects have vanished.  People I’ve worked closely with for forty hours a week, for the last six years have simply been removed.

No goodbyes.

And I am at a loss.

On American progress….

My cab driver this morning was a friendly, talkative Nigerian man.  I asked him if he was going to vote tomorrow, and he frowned and shook his head: “I cannot because I won’t get my citizenship until next year.  I’m sorry to be missing this election because I believe it to be very important.  This country is so divided right now–a house against itself.”  I asked him if he had a favorite candidate, and he was quite vocal on which candidate he thought was most trust-worthy, who most clearly is in touch with the poor, and who won’t abuse his power.  He went on to express his anticipation of becoming a US citizen, and how excited he’d be to have the privilege to vote in 2016.  “I never really understood human advancement until I came to this country.  In my country, if there had been this much ideological conflict, there would be bodies everywhere.  Corruption is pervasive and death would reign.  Here, we argue and fight and then life goes on.”

I quieted as I listened to him speak.  I’ll admit that I believe I am lucky to be a citizen of this country, and in large part, what he says is true (at least for me, a white, middle-class woman).  But I get antsy and nervous when someone begins declaring this the greatest of all nations, particularly when that someone is from another land. I looked at his face in the rear view mirror and noted the scars running across his dark cheeks: a tribal ritual declaring his manhood.

I hesitated then finally offered this: “You are right: there are some places in the world where political differences end up in a blood bath. Guns run rampant, and disagreements are settled with weapons.  But here I think the violence is more insidious.  Here, we kill people through neglect by our trickle down theories.  We assume that markets will right themselves.  We are Darwinian in our handling of social problems–we watch the poor die slow deaths in food deserts: deaths of diabetes and cholesterol related illnesses.  We wring our hands in astonishment and murmur to ourselves about the respect for life as we watch folks on the south side kill each other in gun fights, gang fights, and drug deals.  Yet we don’t see how our latent racism contributes to the lack of self-respect and respect for others.  No sir… we don’t have politicians wielding armies or raising weapons over their heads, but we do have violence in our streets.  Violence that is too easy for white middle-class Americans to ignore.  And when we vote  so that an election only benefits a certain portion of the population, we are killing people slowly, in our own insidious way.”

He took a long look at me in the mirror and said “God knows you speak the truth, sister.”