I Can’t Understand Poverty

 Picture I can’t understand poverty.  It will never make sense to me.  I have some knowledge of poverty.  I’ve waded around in it, building houses for people in the sprawling mass of cardboard and tar-paper shacks that roll on as far as the eye can see over the hills outside Tijuana, Mexico.  I’ve poked around the edges of it in little villages of smiling, toothless farmers in central Baja California, or snapped photos of it from a speedboat skimming past stick huts lining the river in Cambodia.  I’ve wandered through the seedy back allies of Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.  I’ve seen some poverty first-hand and up close.  But I’ll never understand it, not the way those living it understand it.

I could try, I suppose.  I could drop everything and go live among those on the shores of the river or in the back ally, or in the parched valleys of Baja or fetid sea of shacks in Tijuana, but even then I know I could never understand poverty.  Even then, there would be the ever-present reality in the back of my mind that my sojourn into close proximity with and assimilation to the impoverished was just one decision away from escape.  I could always return to my safe, comfortable, middle class reality.

I can’t understand what it must be like to be born into a poverty that is inescapable, a state of being that is just what it is, with no hope of rising up and making a better life, or any real sense that there even is a better life.  What must it be like to never even aspire for lofty things such as clean, running water, or a steady supply of food?  Let alone to dream, all misty eyed of such luxuries as electricity and basic, sanitation or medical care.   I can’t understand the reality of geographic incarceration, a destiny to journey from birth to death never traveling more than a day’s walk from home.  I can’t understand childhood swept away to the daily grind of menial labor by age four.

I can’t understand poverty, but I’ve had a chance to visit with it from time to time.  What troubles me most, however, is not the ugly, soul-wrenching devastation of humanity associated with poverty.  It is not the visceral churning images of the vacant eyed, belly-distended, skin stretched over bones children in Africa.  It’s the haunting images of smiling faces, reverberating sounds of laughter and song, and whistling workers.  It’s the taste of shared meals offered despite the meager means.  It’s the contentment in the eyes of some of the poorest people I have had the opportunity to meet in my various, fleeting brushes with poverty.  That’s what troubles me most.

It troubles me when I find myself, wallowing in why me’s that spring from the constant proximity to abundance, rather than the why me’s of real need.  The smiling faces of poverty point bony fingers in accusation each time I worry over first-world problems and fret about how to spend the relative wealth I have been blessed with.  It troubles me that the only difference between me and countless people living in poverty simply comes down to where I was born and to whom I was born.  But more than that, it troubles me that I am so often discontent in my abundance, and so many with so much less are so often so much more generous and content with where they are and what they have.  I can’t understand poverty, but somehow, I think it may be teaching me something I need to know about me.

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