Friday, December 12, 2008

Looking in the Face of Want

I'm inspired to write something a little more personal here after my experience of handing over a donation check at our local homeless shelter and food bank.

I have never been particularly well off. Actually there have been times in my life when I was luck to make the rent, let alone have enough leftover to pay the electricity, phone, and then feed the brat. At those times I didn't have recourse, either, to calling a better off relative because it seems to have been the habit in my bohemian artsy fartsy 'we're so not establishment' family never to have any cash. Indeed members of my family have courted with financial success as artists only to somehow screw it all up either through self-destructive traits of "no not me, I'm not worthy" to "if I drink enough maybe I'll die young and leave a beautiful corpse".

All that aside though I feel, in essence, that my poverty and that of pretty much every one of my family members, is a lifestyle choice. It's not something circumstance thrust upon us or evil forces of economics randomly picked us out for (I'll leave out the tirade of the unfairness of a culture that doesn't reward certain types of artist for another time). I went to a top college. I could, if I choose, apply for well paying jobs. I have a graduate degree. As I hit the higher end of my thirties I gave up some of the Spartaness of my lifestyle choices and actually did get a job and one that gives me a reasonable level of security (no savings, but I have health and dental and life insurance). This kind of makes me a rebel in my family, but I feel it's worth bucking the system here if I can eat regular, drink decent wine, and keep warm in the winter. Plus I have had some money to indulge myself as an artist.

But what I looked at today when I looked into the faces of those people in the shelter was something quite different. It wasn't necessarily about choice. Of course there are people who screw up their lives royally and then sponge off the system, demanding their 'due' but that's not what I'm talking about. The sad thing about many of the people in our shelters is that they are suffering from a diversity of issues from lack of education, to being mentally or physically challenged, or because they suffer from mental illness. Their culture of poverty is etched deeply upon their faces from the dull eyes, dull hair, to the lack of a pretty gleaming set of dental appliances.

I can't decide whether we, as a society, have grown more or less enlightened over time. It seems such a travesty that people exist on the edge like that and yet - and yet, consider that in Ancient Rome or Medieval France they would be begging on the street. I suspect, in the case of these disenfranchised members of society, we have made little growth as a whole. The begging in this country is taken off the streets and hidden in shelters, but they still have to beg to get the money. Only in the case of places like I went today it is caring people that do the begging on behalf of the needy.

I don't have any answers today except one: more education. It's a long term goal but the least we could do is to give people the choices I had. I knew what opportunities were out there and I had the means and education to pursue them - if I had so chosen. With the most basic of skills how can people know that they have a choice? That's not even addressing the issues surrounding the mentally handicapped or mentally ill, but at least it would be a start.

If only "No Child Left Behind" actually meant what it said.

1 comment:

Vincenzo said...

Something our local aid center is seeing this year are families in need who used to be regular contributors. It's a dire situation all around. We need to share what we can to get through it. Loaves & fishes: everyone shares and no one has to go hungry.