Poor souls

Bear with me here. This is going to sound contrived, but I can’t believe how much I have learned about me since I started examining myself with my daughter’s eyes. I have always been, and continue to be, pretty naïve. Not stupid, in the sense that I know how to pay my bills and read a bus schedule and come in out of the rain. But in this world I often feel like a lamb trotting to my own slaughter.
I generally assume the best about most people until I learn otherwise. Which means that I have been disappointed by people so very many times. Once in awhile I have an immediate bad feeling about a person or situation. I can’t always put my finger on what irks me. I do trust very strongly in my gut feelings, and I have been proven so chillingly right about people on a few occasions that I even impressed myself.
Because Christmas is fast approaching, I joined a group of peers in “adopting” a needy family for the holidays. Here is the rub – based on the very limited information we have gotten about these folks, they don’t look like the typical needy family. While they meet the criteria of having one child under 18, the other kids are older. And many group members are feeling quite…unfestive about the whole thing. I’ve heard the explanations being given by people who don’t want to donate. They keep trying to explain to me as though I don’t understand where they are coming from. I get it. I’m not stupid. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I hate how we, as a species, have all become so cynical and hard-hearted and devoid of compassion.
The group was connected with this family through a legitimate charitable organization. The situation is that they are low income now, and their claim has been reviewed and confirmed. It doesn’t mean that they were always low income. There are a lot of ways that people find themselves in a bad spot – an unexpected illness or accident, sudden loss of employment. In 2008, a lot of very comfortable people lost everything. EVERYTHING. Their jobs. Their cars. Their houses. People went from eating steak to eating food in dented cans from the food bank. Not because they were bad, or because they deserved it. But because many of us are a just a few paychecks away from hardship ourselves.
It is also possible that both parents could both be employed and work very hard, doing the crappy jobs that we don’t want to do (scrubbing toilets, mopping floors) and making minimum wage, which isn’t enough to live on and house a family of six. Ottawa is an extremely expensive city to live in, and I doubt these people are kicking back watching a big screen TV while we pay for their Christmas dinner.
The reality is that any one of us could end up in this situation at some point in our lives, and I sure as hell hope that people treat me with compassion and decency if I do. That is why I opt to give these people the benefit of the doubt.
Post-secondary education is so fucking expensive. That means students from lower income families likely get OSAP and work part-time to cover the rest of their expenses. Living with their parents might be the only way that they can afford to get an education. Even living at home, education is extremely expensive – tuition, books, bus passes, school supplies, etc.
Many young people are in a situation where if they don’t get an education they will end up working for minimum wage and never rising out of poverty (in which case they will collect benefits as a low income person and spend their life hearing about how poor people “soak the system”) or they have to borrow and scrape to get an education, with the intent of becoming contributing members of society after graduation. They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
We live in a country where we have all signed a “social contract” stating that we will support our communities and the people in them, and this includes some forms of charity. We pay it now (ie. supporting families like this one) or we pay it later (ie. benefits for lower income individuals because minimum wage is not a living wage.) If you are educated and upwardly mobile, there are plenty to places to live where people wouldn’t piss on each other if they were on fire. Anyone is capable of Googling that shit and finding a place where you can pretend that other human beings and their suffering don’t exist.
Most of us usually only hear about these families on Christmas. They have to live with their circumstances all year around, even when the donations have dried up. I don’t believe that most people are so greedy or lazy that they would apply for assistance that they don’t need, and I don’t have enough information to make that assessment myself. That is why we go to organizations that have the means and expertise to check it out for us. If we make an agreement with an organization to help, we are not entitled to pick and choose who we want to help. If I donate money to the Mission for someone’s Christmas dinner, I don’t get to say “only give that dinner to a child” or “only give that dinner to a veteran.” I donate my money, and trust that the Mission will do their job. I hope I never have to spend Christmas dinner at the Mission feeling ashamed and unwanted and I don’t envy them for eating my donated food while I enjoy Christmas with my family. At the risk of being controversial, to think that a poor person would gleefully eat donated food or sleep in a homeless shelter in lieu of having a stable job and a grocery bill and place of their own is pretty fucking twisted.
No one should be forced to donate, but I don’t think that anyone is entitled to pass judgement on complete strangers and then use it as an excuse not to contribute if they can. Are people only needy when they look like the people on those World Vision commercials, with the swollen bellies and flies on their faces? How dare those of us who are comfortable, well-employed and mostly importantly VERY LUCKY, judge people we don’t know and decide based on a few facts that they don’t deserve help.
A good part of all of our circumstances is luck. We were lucky to be born in a certain country, in a certain city, to comfortable and fortunate families, to have access to resources and educations and employment opportunities. And we all (I’m sometimes guilty too) take it for granted that we “deserve” these things. The implicit ethical message there is that others who are suffering do not deserve them. I’ve never had to decide between food and heat, or diapers and formula. I don’t go to bed cold or sleep on bare floors or on a cot in a homeless shelter. I don’t shiver on sidewalks all day long.
The bottom line is that I am choosing to treat these people the way that I would want to be treated if I fell on hard times. I’m trying to teach Nina to be gentle and generous and have compassion, and I’m choosing to believe that some people in our community genuinely need our help. Why are we so quick to spend $5 at Starbucks on a squirt of high-fructose corn syrup and 85 cents worth of steamed milk, but the thought of donating to the same amount to needy strangers seems so very costly to us?
I know that people abuse the system. OF COURSE THEY DO. I’m naïve, I’m not blind. I can read the fucking newspaper. But I’m not talking about the people receiving the donations here. I’m talking about US, the givers. About what kind of lessons we are teaching our children when we behave this way. I don’t want Nina to grow up believing that people are fundamentally dishonest or dishonourable. I don’t want her to be cynical or hateful. That it is ok to clutch our money, our resources, in white-knuckled hands because someone might, maybe, possibly, on the off chance, not need it as much as they claim they do.
Even though I have been cheated at times, I don’t feel cheated. And because I’ve given people the benefit of the doubt, I am filled with memories of grateful people that I have helped over the years. People who might some day pay it forward because of the kindness that was shown to them. I have hope that even if I didn’t get to enjoy my gift firsthand, someone’s life is a little better for it.
I’m sick of being called a “bleeding heart” for believing in something as basic as sharing what little extra I have and helping my fellow man. I know that I risk being ripped off. I know that some people, over the years, have taken advantage of me and my willingness to help. I don’t help people just for them, I also do it for me. So that even when the world seems like a hopeless cesspool of greed and decay and lying and stealing, I know that I have helped in some small way. So that no matter how bad things gets, I can still look in the mirror and feel my own humanity. And most importantly, be someone that my daughter can be proud of.
Like I said, I don’t think that anyone should be forced to donate. People are free to keep their money. But judgement is judgement and prejudice is prejudice, and I’m calling a spade a spade.
The world is full of assholes, but I won’t be one of them.

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