Poverty of Existence

Growing up, I had two pairs of underwear – one on and one in the wash.  We did the washing on Saturdays but bath-time was less frequent.  If I tell someone I grew up in poverty, they don’t continue the conversation.  Why should they?  Poverty is not something that is meaningful just as a word.  Poverty is the absence of something relative to the wealth of others around you.  But that too is relative.  A kid in our class had no underwear at all.  We found out when we got changed for physical education in the classroom, girls and boys together.  So with my grubby underpants, I was wealthy relative to him.

Destitution, on the other hand, is the inability to provide for the basic needs of human existence – nutrition, shelter, health, clothing.  After my Dad abandoned us, we were destitute.  I realized only recently that there were aspects of destitution that I would hide, if I could.  I would hide that I was hungry because I could.  You can’t see hunger.  And I would never bring anyone back to our house because I didn’t want them to see the filth and the rags and squalor we lived in.  I tried to hide my destitution because I was ashamed of it.  I can still feel the shame, typing these words.  Frank McCourt said the same thing in Angela’s Ashes, the growing shame that others make you feel for your poverty.

The shame isn’t within us to begin with.  It is planted there by others who need to feel better about themselves.  They point at your toes sticking out of the end of your broken shoes and laugh.  They point at the kid getting changed in the classroom with his nakedness on view for everyone to see.  They point and they laugh.

I have made an enormous success of my life by most measures.  But whether I know them or they are a stranger, I never laugh at anyone who has less than me.


  1. That was touching somehow, i do think that people that would make fun of other because of their status, be that social, economical or cultural,have actually some kind of fear or insecurity themselves which they try to mask or dismiss by making feel others inferior.

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