The way we read each other matters. The importance of how we read each other goes far beyond interpersonal social experiences; it can have far-reaching impact on social policy, laws, and even on sociopolitical revolutions.
A reader pointed out last month that negative comments following my February column weren’t from people necessarily disagreeing with me when I said the system is broken; they just didn’t like that I was saying it or how I was saying it. A common theme in BDN reader responses to my column over the years boils down to telling me to buck up and deal with life because life is hard. I’m read as whining, naive or clueless about “real life.”
Lately, I’ve been listening to some holier-than-thou and supremely arrogant essays about socioeconomic class in “ Anarchism and Other Essays,” by Emma Goldman. Her words have me revisiting the subject of accepting misery or finding misery unacceptable; what it means to be generationally poor rather than situationally poor, as I wrote about in one of my first columns in this paper back in 2012.
Goldman writes, “Among the exploited … there are two classes of individuals. Those of one class, not realizing what they are and what they might be, take life as it comes, believe that they are born to be slaves, and content themselves with what little is given to them in exchange for their labor.” She goes on to say, “But there are others, on the contrary, who think, who study, and who, looking about them, discover social inequities … they … suffer at seeing others suffer.”
As I said, I find Goldman’s writings pompous and her tone insufferable. Still, there is truth in her idea that some people assume life will be hard, even miserable, while other people encounter impossible and absurd situations — like governments making food stamps available for no more than three months in a three-year period — as something to fight and fix.
The absence of hope and the acceptance of life as difficult comes from life experience, to be sure. I’m not suggesting people living in poverty have the time or energy to sit around thinking about change and feeling hopeful. I am suggesting we must change our systems to make the time and energy required for change and hope available to everyone.
When I describe my difficult times — applying for and receiving food stamps, not having enough money to buy gas, being too embarrassed to tell my friends I couldn’t afford to go out to coffee — I’m not saying, “Oh, poor me, life is too hard!”
I’m bringing into the light difficulties so many other people face every day, all the time, who don’t have the luxury of hope my own background gives me.
If you live in or near poverty every day, surely you must admit it’s not easy. I think that is something we can all agree on.
And here I come back to the common response to my columns: “Life isn’t easy, it’s not supposed to be!”
I disagree. Life should be easy, at least some of the time. The goal of relieving the stresses of poverty for our neighbors, allowing everyone the opportunity to have some easy living, should be one of the most important guiding factors in our collective lives.
Access to high-quality health care with all expenses paid by the government; wages that go beyond the bare minimum and bring in enough for housing, food, clothing, savings, education, and leisure; as well as freedom from discrimination based on socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, physical ability or age. These are elements that can help make some of life easier.
Read me as whining and out of touch if you must, but know that for some people life actually is relatively easy much of the time. That is real life, for them. Everyone should have access to hope borne of the reality of living with some ease — economic stability, real economic stability, shouldn’t be reserved for the few.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.