The Richness of Poverty

It is often said that “Money can’t buy happiness”; a truism attested to by many a wealthy person who faced circumstances that fell well out of range of their bank accounts: debilitating disease, destruction of a home by natural causes such as flood, fire or earthquake—one in which all memories and family treasures are lost, loss of a loved one—human or animal. These are but a few instances in which money is rendered mute to console. But, that is not the kind of happiness, or lack thereof, that I am referencing here.  I’m talking about the everyday things that contribute to our sense of well-being, contentment, and yes, love and acceptance.

If you’ve ever been poor, you probably know what I mean. Not having a lot meant that what you did have was appreciated to  the max. Often that was the simplicity of a small home that afforded shelter, simple but deliciously prepared food, a few of your own clothes—even if they were handed down to you, and family and friends with whom to spontaneously play and laugh—no appointment needed. There were also multiple places to just “be yourself”: parks, school, church, juke joints, pool halls, swimming pools, street corners, etc. No one judged you in these places. You were “free.”  “Free”, yes, that’s it, exactly! History is replete with stories of how poverty “freed” up incredible creativity and daring in countless people whose ideas and works are substance to our world today. Few aristocrats are credited with creating ingenious inventions that are now commonplace in our daily lives. It was “Mother Necessity” that is credited with so much of what we know and use today.

I know that I’m not alone when I long for some of those times, now gone, when solitude in my small, close-quartered home was enough to satisfy me; when being alone with a great book, great music, a long, tall, cold drink, and a warm fire made me feel “rich” enough; when the smell of a sleeping baby’s breath and Johnson’s Baby Powder was all I needed to feel secure and worthy; when the warm fur of a loving, loyal dog or cat reassured me that someone or something cared deeply for me and depended on me. My bank account was practically non-existent—or at best, overdrawn, but the things that mattered most could not be withdrawn from it, anyway.

Think about the first time you were truly “happy.” For me, it was when the obstetrical nurse laid my first child in my arms. I had labored hard and produced something truly wonderful. Pride, joy and consuming humility brought tears of indescribable happiness cascading down my face. There are no words to capture that feeling—most certainly not the word “money.” No price tag would be high enough—not one. The closest would be “Priceless!” I struggle to recall just exactly when the last true “happy” took place.

So, why is it that we so dogmatically pursue wealth if it’s happiness that we desire? Isn’t that activity counter-productive to what we aspire to achieve? How many times do we have to see evidence of the sadness and personal destruction that money has wrought in lives of people we both know and read about? Countless! There are those who tout that “Money is the root of all evil”, quoting, or “mis-quoting” from some passage in the Bible. The irony is that they are mixing two very different constructs: money is a symbol of value, created by Man—evil is an inherent quality—generated by an internally driven spirit, the source of which is unknown. Chew on that for a minute—and please don’t go to the “Devil” as your reference.

Poverty is given a bad rap—it definitely is an inconvenient state of being, but its ultimate value in the experience of mankind is that one doesn’t easily forget it. With all the bad news about being poor, the good news is that there are no other avenues toward wealth that are so rich with memories. Living in it (poverty) provides the soul-stirring stories of sermons, and heartfelt reminiscences among old friends that evoke, and re-evoke the  joys, and hurts that we can’t, and often don’t want to forget–the people, the places, the events– they are what shaped us, from the ground up.

From my days of living in an impoverished neighborhood, I will take  with me to my grave these words that I once saw painted in a large sign on a burned-out building in the “Hood.” It read:

“Thank you for all you gave me,

Thank you for all you took from me,

Thank you for all you left me.

Gratitude is Attitude”


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