People are often curious about my experience here with poverty. I have struggled with the question of “what’s it like,” and comments that talk about how I’m probably seeing “real poverty.” Part of the reason I think I have never had a good answer to these questions is because I am just starting to develop a vocabulary for it. Poverty isnot just living without money, it is a collection of absences that combine to cause suffering. A simple enough word, ‘poverty’; defining it is difficult, identifying it is even harder, and correcting it seems almost impossible.
I was listening to The Moth Podcast while cleaning yesterday and the storyteller was describing her family going bankrupt. One day her mother stated, “we don’t have any money for groceries, go eat at the country club” (Radio Hour: Holiday Special 2015, December 23, 2015). Sometimes I feel that disconnected from what it must be like to experience poverty. I do feel that I catch fleeting glimpses of it from time to time, but it appears most people in any culture tend to hide poverty, sadness, and suffering.
But I am so glad that I am here and that my eyes are opening wider. As a nurse back home, I cared for many people affected by homelessness, poverty, and marginalization. We would get upset because some people’s medical problems were due to not taking prescribed medications, but more than a few of these people were probably making the difficult choice between whether to feed their families or heat their home, making medications an afterthought. Living in an unfamiliar culture, I have to get to know someone a bit better, look a little closer, and ask more questions before drawing connections or understanding actions that may be related to poverty.
As Susan mentioned, the holidays here were quite difficult. In addition to homesickness and a little exhaustion, something about poverty was really affecting us. In reflecting and trying to understand the emotions, I continue to have a difficult time identifying the things that are upsetting me. I am probably affected by the level of generosity, the overwhelming joy in people’s eyes, a sometimes unrelenting level of kindness, an anger over the world’s injustice, being viewed as a guest of honor, and a little personal guilt on the side.
Although my reflections have provided few answers, I can finally almost describe “what it’s like.”
Living among profound poverty is uncomfortable; it feels like an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach and a black hole of sadness under the left side of my heart. It is like the dreary drone of a bagpipe - a constant drag, pull, tug, pang in the background of each and every day. I am sorry if that is still too abstract, but there is really nothing I have been been able to put my finger on and say - “oh, that’s it, that’s how you describe poverty.”
I promise I will keep trying to understand, describe, and alleviate poverty. I can tell you that living amongst the impoverished makes it almost impossible to ignore. Much more difficult than when it is pushed off to some corner of a neighborhood I try not to drive through.