The Story That Made Me Cry

I remember the first time a friend’s parent asked where I lived and the way her brow furrowed in response to my answer. And the time another friend said I couldn’t go round for tea at her house again because her mum said I ‘lacked manners’.

Em Ledger

By some odd happenstance I came across a story that illustrates what this website is about: life and purpose. Em Ledger shared her experience as part of the British working class in her article, “How to be Poor and Happy,” posted in the Wellcome Collection website under the category of “Stories.” I had never heard of the Wellcome Collection before, but the site refers to it as “A free museum and library exploring health and human experience.”

I was familiar with the term “working class,” though I thought it applied only to places across the ocean. I was more familiar with the term “blue collar worker,” but didn’t understand the parameters of its meaning. When I discovered that plumbers are “blue collar workers,” and that many were more affluent than “white collar workers,” it was confusing. The world in which I lived more frequently referred to the “middle class,” though I didn’t know where that began or ended.

Growing up, I assumed that my family was middle class, because everyone was middle class. That was the culture. But there were numerous times when we had no food and didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. That’s when I wondered if we were actually poor. Things got very strange as I got older and our fortunes shifted violently. We were, technically, supported by a member of the college educated, white collar class, albeit on the lower rungs. Then I discovered that many of the other kids in my neighborhood had parents in the blue collar category, and they lived about as well as I did—sometimes better.

You might say I grew up rather betwixt and between. Too poor to keep up with the Joneses and too rich (on paper at least) to be poor. Many issues of family circumstances independent of actual white/blue collar-ness contributed to the issues that took my own family from middle class to impoverishment while still carrying on many “white collar” behaviors. I prefer not to dwell on the reasons, yet when I read Em’s personal story of being from the “working class” it struck me how much we had in common.

Her remark about the stereotypes of working class folk being lazy and refusing to pull themselves up by the bootstraps hit me in the gut. I have often considered that the lowest paid jobs I ever held were the hardest, physically speaking, and the least accommodating. I was at one time a single parent without child support struggling to overcome the emotional disorders from an abusive first marriage, working weekends and nights, often without transportation to get home late at night. The stress destroyed my health, one of my children developed a severe autoimmune disorder, and the whole of it brought me literally to death’s door at age 29. The cherry on top was when a pastor’s wife made it clear that I had about as much social collateral with her as leprosy.

But I’m not writing this to hate on the rich and favor the poor (nor even to say I now hate all church people). Not at all, because the god’s honest truth is that I have met plenty of poor people who are rich in arrogance and a handful of genuinely humble rich people who I’m sure the good Lord counts among the “poor in spirit.” I will admit, however, that it is mostly the poor and the lower middle class who truly help the destitute.

There will always be disparities, hardships, unexpected things that go wrong. All people go through them and in quite unexpected ways. I also find the reverse to be true. Incredible opportunities can drop in unexpectedly, but you have to have the presence of mind to recognize them when they come. It is so very hard to see them when you are nursing your wounds. Look up, my friend, not down all the time! I think of Dostoevsky: “I can see the sun, but even if I cannot see the sun, I know that it exists. And to know that the sun is there—that is living.”

I fear I may have lost my reader at this point. My goal was not to distract with the worst possible scenarios of human misery but to recognize that most people who have ever lived on earth have not come from powerful echelons of society at all. In fact, the most talented and powerful people have sometimes come from the most unexpected quarters. Yet why are so many of us crippled by the stereotypes assigned to us arbitrarily? Is it because we actually believe those who assign these labels are “normal” and that we are not? What if it’s the other way around?

I often write about finding purpose. But tell me, how can anyone find purpose if they believe that birth or upbringing adds to or subtracts from the core value of their life? So you didn’t grow up learning about tea manners. Perhaps you learned to be a really darned good friend and a good listener.

Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”I think this is testament to her lived experience of both poverty and, later, success.

Em Ledger

I so agree. Em mentions the warmth of childhoods where things didn’t matter so much as people pulling together and supporting one another. Some of my most treasured memories are the times when I was beaten down and others with little means nevertheless came to listen, to help me cry it out, to help me find my sanity again. How can you put a price on that? How can you say that these people, some of whom were very simple indeed, had less value because they didn’t dine at Maxim’s?

Some years ago I picked up a book on “rankism”: Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank. It detailed what I think is our innate competitive nature to advance ourselves by reducing others to mere social utilities. The author demonstrated that the same person who was respected as a professor was treated rudely when posing undercover as a bus boy. I have personally experienced this phenomenon in more than one context.

Right after getting my first masters degree, I had to attend a parent-teacher meeting at the school of one of my children. I had left that child in the care of a relative in another town until I could tie up some loose ends and get moved. Word had it that I was about to get a talking-down-to from his teachers. However, when I arrived at the meeting with the relative, he informed them that I had just finished a masters degree. Suddenly, every teacher snapped to attention and became very respectful.

I have always remembered that as a lesson, for it contrasted so sharply with that incident with the pastor’s wife that I mentioned earlier. What I took away from it is that I am not my job. Or my pocket book. Or my social club. Or where I came from. I am me. I know that some will not perceive that truth looking at me from the outside-in. I, however, cherish those memories as a reality check, right up there with the knowledge that we are all naked under our clothes.

Getting back to Em’s original question, can a working class person be poor and be happy?— I think yes. I have asked myself that so many times, testing it out in this situation and in that. Being “poor” by community standards is one thing. Being utterly destitute is another. If you have enough food and good friends, you are pretty rich, to tell the truth. Why waste your time on those who only see you as a label?

There is a saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” When someone attempts to bring you under themselves by creating an arbitrary standard with which you must comply to be acceptable, you should definitely back away. This person often presents themselves as a friend or as someone trying to do you a favor. In fact, they are trying to elevate themselves at your expense. They are neither friend nor benefactor.

Remember they may not even be aware that they are not your friend. They may have come to you for affirmation, as friends do initially, but in the process they have started pulling this stunt. Many people don’t know their own motivations. When you see this happen, you are actually seeing them for who and what they really are. Simply recognize the situation as the underside of the universe tapestry. That is not the side you belong on.

Have a talk with yourself from time to time if you are inclined to let other people place you into arbitrary patterns of meaning that you neither asked for nor would aspire to. Affirm the good, the true, and the beautiful as often as you can and ask yourself if the way you see yourself in the world and what you want to do is life-honoring. That’s what you should be following and that is how you should measure your progress through life.

Featured image: Frank Bramley, A Hopeless Dawn, 1888, Tate (N01627), digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

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