From Poor in Wallet to Poor in Spirit
Whatever doesn’t kill you often makes you bitter, angry and ignorant
Many would say that adversity itself is not necessarily honorable, but overcoming it — pulling yourself up by the bootstraps — is. But we might not be pulling ourselves as far up as we think. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the psychological and economic effect of hardship can transfer across generations, even into wealthy families. Bitterness and social isolation become the stubborn residue of tough times when people must continually lower life’s expectations and deprivation becomes an ethic.
If you’re paying for your college right now, you know what I’m talking about. Parents who are one generation out of poverty often mistake independence for neglect. My grandmother, for instance, grew up with the burden of farm work and raising her four siblings. When my mom was growing up, my grandmother’s repressed anger metastasized into a combination of overbearing and emotional neglect. My mother coped through the self-indulgence of alcoholism, yet retained the mistaken ethic of her parents. Under the guise of “independence,” she espoused a typically American ethic that the parent is best who parents least.
In poor households, the situation is often worse. When children struggle to get attention at home and consistently miss out on opportunities, they grow up resenting those who seem to get a fairer shake. According to the American Psychological Association, children raised in poverty experience delayed development and behavioral and socioemotional problems. They are more likely to lash out at peers, have trouble advancing in school, and struggle with impulsiveness.
In the U.S., this results in a high correlation between poverty and crime, but in other countries it can be more extreme. According to a study by the U.N. in Jordan, “honor killings” — like when a husband murders his cheating wife — are closely linked to poverty.
When you are constantly degraded, “honor” ceases to be a moniker of decent behavior and becomes something that needs to be defended. There is a reason that wealthy areas are called “nice neighborhoods.”
While people like my mother overcame their struggles economically, their repressed anger was externalized the same as in poor neighborhoods. I see it when my mother rails against coastal elitism or when my father gripes about his neighbors on subsidized housing. Hardship is why people vote to tax the rich and why others vote to cut social services. It’s not that they’re wrong, but that their anger is politicized. No one wants to see anyone else have it better.
The pride of the debased in our culture is rooted in the perversion of Christian humility and combined with the insurgent character of modern capitalism. We used to flagellate ourselves for God, and now we see the triumph over adversity as the mark of spiritual strength. Rather than learn to empathize through our suffering, we internalize neglect as the ethic of mendicancy and project our anger into the social and political world. So, before you slip into your flannel jacket, go learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”