Poor, Preferably in Spirit

15 12 2009

I saw him there, standing in the ditch while I, ironically, was on my way to church.  I did not have time to stop, and I did not care.  Later that day, I saw him again, in passing.  He was still ankle-deep in the water, digging through the flotsam for some kind of tidbit.  He was naked, and he had no home.  He had no gainful employment, and no easy source of food.  As I watched, I saw him pull a nasty mass of algae from the filthy mire, which he promptly devoured right before my eyes.  Such a wretched state of existence was unimaginable to me.  I had never been so low.  “What has happened to you?!” I shouted from atop the levy, “How have you been reduced to this?!”

The homeless one paused in his scavenging to give me a sideways, knowing, look.  He then turned and gave me this one word answer, “Quack!”  And then he flew away.

Poverty is a matter of perspective.  These days it looks, to me, like not having three square meals a day, but there was a time when a single jar of peanut butter made me feel like the richest man in the world.  My concept of poverty, now, looks a lot like my idea of wealth, ten years ago, and then my idea of poverty was like my idea of wealth just a year before that.  I thank God that, at least, things have been going in that direction and not the other way.

It was the year that I got laid off from my job for Christmas.  Christmas Eve, I was employed.  Christmas Day, I was not.  I must say that the worst time to go looking for a job is right after the holidays.  No one was hiring.  I spent all day, every day, applying at every business that seemed healthy.  It was me and my bike, making the rounds at every retail store I could find.  I did manage to get one interview, but stores like a cheerful worker, and I was grumpy from not having enough to eat.  I got a month behind on my rent.  My food dwindled to absolutely nothing, and I found myself in the library, begging the librarian to refund the balance on my copy card so I could afford to do my laundry.  She couldn’t do that for me, but she did give me change out of her own purse, for which I was ever grateful.

The closest this came to breaking me was the day that I biked the few miles to my bank to remove the last of my money, hoping to fill that emptiness in my belly.  The teller informed me that because my balance dwindled below the minimum limit, the bank took the rest.  I stood there in disbelief.  I had specifically chosen this bank because they had stated in their policy that they did not do this thing.  My previous bank had confiscated all my money when I was a little kid who didn’t possess more than a few bucks.  I was still bent that a bank would rob a kid of all of his money, so I chose this one because they had no minimum balance.  Sometime while I wasn’t paying attention, the two banks merged, and they chose the business plan that suited them best.  So there I was, dirt poor, and the local bank took the few remaining bucks that I thought were to be my lunch that day.

I could have walked my bike inside and thrown it across the room at the teller.  I might end up in jail, but at least I’d have a meal.  I prayed to God and told him that my life was in his hands.  If I was hungry, then I would just have to bear that and let God have his way, whatever it may be.  What was the worst that could happen?  Not long before, I had been severely ungrateful to God in all things, hating life and contemplating suicide on a regular basis.  If anyone deserved his providence, it wasn’t me, and I knew it.  I had shaken my fist at him too many times to make demands, then.  But, though I couldn’t see a solution on the horizon, I believed that there was a bottom, below which I would not fall, and I was right.

During those weeks friends gave me some food, here and there.  I didn’t even ask for help, but they fed me, all the same.  The experience shook me to the core.  My single greatest worldly treasure was a jar of peanut butter, which I savored, little by little, until it was gone.  When a friend gave that to me, I felt a thousand times richer.

Even that food dwindled, though.  With two pennies and a single piece of candy in my pocket, I headed to the store to admire the food.  I thought I would just wander around and at least be happy that such things existed.  Outside the door, a homeless man begged me for money, like he had been doing it all his life.  I wanted to laugh, because he could not tell that I probably had even less than he did.  Poverty was not something I had become accustomed to.  I had not learned to live that way.  Some people use charity as a means of supporting themselves until they can get back on their feet.  I had seen this man before, and I knew that charity had only taught him how to get more charity.  He was a career bum, spoiled by handouts.  My parents had helped enough poor people when I was a kid that I knew what I was looking at.  Nevertheless, mostly for the sake of humor, I said, “Man, I don’t have a dime,” and then I gave him my “lunch,” the small piece of hard candy.  At least he said, “thanks.”

A couple of weeks past Christmas found me standing at the teller window again, attempting to cash a scant paycheck of a couple hour’s work.  They scrutinized the thing, like I was attempting to pull one over on them, as though I were a common thief.  They had robbed me of my entire fortune, and then they treated me like a thief?

But I made it.  Thank God, I made it.  Four weeks later, I had a job, and I was back to routine eating.  I was paying the rent.  I was going to make it.  That experience left me poor in finances for a month, but it left me poor in spirit for a lifetime.  No matter how things improved from that time, onward, I lived with the mindset of a poor man.  I cherish every meal.  Thank God for food.  Every time it rains, I thank God for the roof over my head.  Every time misfortune strikes someone I know, I seek to thank God by helping that person the way that God helped me through friends.

I try not to make my parents’ mistake of generating dependence in others, but there’s a delicate balance between that and neglect.  In truth, one might be surprised at how little a person really needs to give to help another in their time of need.  Fear of destitution and a strong sense of need drive people to get themselves out of their own mess.  One must never give so much as to completely fill that need.  People must continue to strive to make things right in their own lives, rather than stay where they are.  Institutionalized charity, especially through the government, dehumanizes the help.  It makes the gift too easy to take for granted.  When I think of my trouble, I can be thankful for the people who cared for me.

A few years later, I was laid off from a better job.  My wife and I were sitting in a coffee shop, sipping our warm lattes, when she read about it in the newspaper.  It really says something about an employer when the newspaper has your job termination before you even know about it.  We didn’t worry.  God would provide.  A new and much better job landed in my lap at just the right time.  I didn’t even have to look for it.  On the day that I left that business, a parade of people entered the boss’ office and left crying.  Half of the people were losing their jobs, and the others had no guarantee.  I felt like Noah, escaping disaster by divine providence.

God promises wealth to no one.  In fact, he would rather have us be poor, or, at least, poor in spirit.  I may be getting my three square meals, but my mentality is still riding the streets in search of a job.  Every day that finds me a little overweight is a good day.  I thank God for every last little thing that I have, every need fulfilled.  I may not be poor now, but I will always be poor in spirit.

I much prefer it over the alternative.

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