Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Good things in the culture of the poor

There are many facets to this thing called being poor, the sum of which creates a set of values that in other contexts would be called a culture. It is, however, an invisible culture, at least as far as mainstream media is concerned. You only hear or read about the poor when we become a “problem” for society, or when some politician wants to use us in a bid for votes. Such bids, of course, are never made to us. We’re either litmus paper for the health of a society, or cancer used to scare the middle class.

The invisibility of the poor as an authentic culture merits a blistering rant, but I won’t get into here. Instead, I want to sing some aspects of that culture.

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If you want to see generosity in action, look to the poor. In my experience, those with the least to give are frequently the fastest to hold out a helping hand. Even when the only shirt they have is on their backs, they’ll share or even give it if your need is greater than their own. I've been fed and housed at times by people for whom kindness is a luxury, yet they’ve done it willingly, no questions asked. Charity is helpful, to be sure—and thanks to all who give it—but real generosity goes further than mere alms. It nourishes the soul in ways that charity cannot.

When your pocket’s full, it’s easy to be giving. When it’s almost empty, reaching in requires sacrifice: a willingness to do without to help out someone else. The act ennobles both recipient and giver, and fosters bonds that form the basis of community and culture.

Cooperation is the counterpart to generosity. When you’re poor, necessity demands it. The simplest needs, at times, cannot be met. The middle-class and upper’s panacea, ”Why don’t you just buy...”, is not an option. You have to pool resources, which gives those involved a stake in helping out. A reward, as well.

Take John and James and me. We hang out a lot. (In fact, if we get lucky, we may be moving in together soon.) All three of us like movies, but none of us can kick back and enjoy them on our own. I possess a laptop but no DVDs. John’s the owner of a decent monitor, but hasn’t got a player. Sasha, who’s the daughter of my temporary landlord, Bill, has tons of DVDs but rarely feels like company. My laptop’s sound is terrible, but James’s girlfriend has some speakers he can borrow.

When the urge to watch a movie strikes, a typical scenario is this:

John walks down to Sasha’s and picks up some DVDs. James sweet-talks his girlfriend into lending him her speakers. We all walk back to John’s, where I attach my laptop to his monitor and plug in James’s girlfriend’s speakers. John clears off his bed, James rolls a joint, and sometime later, pleased at having overcome the obstacles, we begin the show.

It’s a complicated process just to watch a movie. You’d think we’d tire of it, but we don’t. Sure, it would be nice sometimes to sink back in a Laz-Z-Boy and fire up a 56-inch flatscreen with surround sound blasting from the speakers. But how long would the pleasure last if, every time we got together, it were easy? Where would be the sense of sharing and occasion? Where would be the teamwork that adds spice to being friends? Where would be the pride that comes from overcoming challenges?

Watch kids at play. They don’t go out and purchase everything they need. They improvise, make do, invent. Listen to the sounds they make. Their glee’s as much about cooperation as it is about the game.

I'm fifty-three. John is forty-two. James is twenty-two. When we’re watching movies, it’s as if we’re six. For us, being poor’s a way of staying childlike—a good thing in a world overrun by greedy grownups.

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