I was “poor” and I didn’t know.

As I observed the extremes of the poor and the privileged during my boat ride down Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, I started to reflect and contemplate on my observations.

As we cruised down the river I observed the homes of some locals. I saw how many of them were dilapidated and falling apart. I also observed that many homes had satellite dishes attached to them too. That was quite an incongruous image. Many houses were falling apart but they had satellite dish cable… and probably a flat screen television to watch it on too! lol However, what was the most noteworthy is when I observed the people themselves. They were sitting on their porches and on the docks eating, conversing, fishing, playing with children, etc. and as we passed by they waved at us with such big, contented smiles. They looked so happy. They seemed so happy and the questions that were left in my mind was

Were they happy? Were they content with their lives?

another home along the river

a home along the river

For many individuals, especially in the West, the living conditions of these persons would seem deplorable. They would be considered impoverished and in need of some type of assistance.
Isn’t that why so many countries in the West have developed foundations and organizations to help the impoverished and those in need? We have observed the “impoverished”, “needy” and “less fortunate” and decided to lend a helping hand and in no way is that a wrong desire. Actually, it’s a laudable and virtuous venture and many in need have been assisted by the ambition of those who dedicate their lives to those in need.

But my question still stands: are these “impoverished” persons happy/content?

As I ponder, I am brought back to the time when my mother, brother and I moved from the USA to the Caribbean.

From my 11 year old perspective, it was so cool that we were going to live on an island where there were beaches and mountains, my mom’s part of the family and the home of all the interesting stories my mom and extended family members shared with us during our childhood. In retrospect though, I see that we actually went from “riches to rags”. Before we moved to the Caribbean my mom was part owner of a 2 story duplex and my brother and I grew up in a very sizable 3 bedroom apartment. We went from that to living in a 2 bedroom wooden shack with a combination living room and kitchen separated by only a wooden counter. There was no insulation, there was a bare galvanized roof that leaked whenever there was torrential rain and we had a termite and pest problem. At times I missed our old home in North America but the word “poor” or “impoverished” was NEVER a term I used to describe our situation. My mother was an educated, degree holding and respectable woman. She had a very good job on the island and made enough to take care of herself and her two children and had enough to spare to hire a help to take care of my brother and I while she worked. In addition we had extended family members that played a big part in taking care of us.

It was not until my first year out of college when I was dating a Trinidadian fellow, that I started to question if my family was “poor” or not.  My boyfriend and I had a discussion about Western materialism and that’s when he dropped the bomb on me. He said

I did not realize that I was poor until I moved to the USA. We were poor and I did not even know it.

WOW! Wait… What?!!

But his home was much better than my family’s own on the island we lived on. So how could he have been poor? Wait… so was I poor, too? But how could I have been poor? Mommy was educated and employed and my brother and I had a happy childhood with many privileges that many of our peers never had. How could we have been poor? No one called us poor on the island. I would look at my peers and see many that were poor because they didn’t have electricity, running water or toilets in their homes or even shoes on their feet! Some of my peers received financial help from CCF (Christian Children’s Fund), which ran commercials that we saw on TV. So, they were poor… not us… right?

I fought with this idea for a while until I thought back on where we lived before we moved to the Caribbean. The ‘me’ that lived in that apartment in the USA, if I took a look at the ‘me’ that lived in the Caribbean; I would have thought that the ‘me’ that lived in the Caribbean was indeed poor.

That was a hard idea to accept but I started to understand what my boyfriend meant. According to the standard in the USA, we were indeed, poor. Now, in relations to the standard of the island we were better off than many and… we were happy.

In my mind, the poor were those who had less than what we had and were unhappy. So there is no way we could have been poor. I guess I was influenced by the images that commercials on TV showed us as they begged and coerced people to send money to feed the poor children and families all over the world. I just did not see my family, at all, in that light.

As the years have gone by and through my experiences, I still do not accept the notion that my family was “poor”.

Were we really poor? What is the definition of “poor”?!!

According to Merriam-Webster:

POOR: having little money or few possessions
: not having enough money for the basic things that people need to live properly
: having a very small amount of something
: not good in quality or condition

Hmmmm…. honestly, from my understanding, my family has never fit that definition. We had things, we never went hungry, we had clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet, beds to sleep on and a roof over our head. So the only conclusion I can make is that my ex-boyfriend’s definition of poor was based on the definition of poor he learned while in USA and by comparing his life in Trinidad to the lives of those who lived in North America. This also brings me to further conclude that the definition of “poor” changes according to one’s demographic, where one lives and to whom they compare themselves to. At the end, it’s all about comparisons and opinions and not necessarily the truth.

Comparison: the thief of contentment

Opinions: often offered, ever changing but never guaranteed to be truth

And enlightenment has arrived!

I get it now. Nowadays, our definition of poor comes from the adulation of materialism. So our definition of whether we are poor or not and our happiness is based on the superficial acquisition of modern, marketed and costly “things”. Since “things” are always advertised and thrown in our faces for us to attain we spend our money, time and energy trying to acquire these things that will make us feel like we are not poor… but in reality we are poor. We are poor in our thinking and poor thinking dictates poor actions which will indeed leave you poorer than you were before you were influenced by society’s idea of “having”. In our minds, we think of our “wants” as “needs” and are mutated into these “materialistic – get it by any means necessary – greed driven” capitalists that consider those who do not have what we have or do not have what we want, to be “poor”. May I also add that this makes us no better than the elite who continue to chase wealth, capital and power even to the detriment of those around them, leaving others without and driven into poverty to over fill their already busting pockets.

I strongly adhere to the idea that it is the duty of the those that “have” to help those that “have not” but outside of humanistic basic needs within our modern society, I can no longer impose the term “poor” or “impoverished” on anyone just because their lives do not reflect my standards of privileged and, on top of that, conclude that their lives are miserable and they are not content because of it.

Through my travels I have witnessed for myself, many so called “poor” persons have so much more knowledge, wisdom, peace, joy and contentment than people who are considered “privileged” and because of this I feel more than confidant that my family and I were never poor. We had our basic needs met and much more, we had love, we had happiness, we had family, we had community and most of all, we had God and there will never be any poverty in that.

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