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The poor R us: Deal with it


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David Mills - published on 09/20/17

You play the hand you're dealt, and not everyone gets a straight flush.
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The crippled man on the bus had been let down by a social worker who never showed up to give him a ride, and walked a mile to get to the bus stop. He was speaking on his phone to a secretary who told him he’d be marked as a no-show and charged for the appointment with his counselor.

He looked “downright afraid, in a helpless way,” writes Mary Pezzulo, who blogs at “Steel Magnificat,” who was sitting on the bus when he got on. She noticed he had one skinny leg.

It happens all the time

At the end of the conversation, he begged to talk to his counselor.

My insurance will pay you for a full hour, I’ll just see her for 15 minutes, but I really need to see her! NO! No, you said you understood. Do you understand having one leg? Did you do community service today and walk a mile on one leg? I shouldn’t have to pay you because my caseworker keeps having emergencies. This happened last week too. She’s always having emergencies. I just really, really need to talk to my counselor.

“Apparently, that skinny leg was a prosthesis,” Pezzullo writes. She thought he might be a veteran. “A low-income veteran picked up on some nonviolent offense — drugs, perhaps — and sentenced to counseling and community service but given no easy means to do both. It happens all the time. And if that wasn’t his story, you can bet the real one was equally tragic.”

He must be new to this, she thought as she listened to him beg the secretary for 15 minutes. “You’d be better off screaming at a cop.”

Those who have not been poor in some way often don’t know how quickly a problem can turn into several bigger problems, become intractable. Those of us in the middle class can usually fix our problems. The poor very often can’t. It’s the difference between stumbling on a stick lying on the lawn and tripping on a broken step at the top of very steep high stairs.

Some will not see

Many Catholics do not, or will not, see that. Every time, every single freaking time, I’ve written anything sympathetic to the poor or reminded the comfortable of their (our) blessings, many good Catholics reacted. Poorly. (As here.)

They may be consciously counter-cultural Catholics who assent to every word in the Catechism. They still blame the poor for their suffering. They write as if success were the sign of virtue. I do not exaggerate in the least. Here’s one example, from a Facebook comment on something I’d written: “I literally cannot think of a single real-world example of a *chronically* poor person who is not poor due to their own life choices,” the writer declared.

“In the United States, it’s relatively easy to move out of poverty and into the middle class. Mindless, utopianist do-gooderism is not Catholic, either, which is why such is utterly absent from the Scriptures and from the Christian tradition before the modern popes stupidly decided to try baptizing Marxist-Leninism and calling the new hybrid — Socialism + God — ‘Catholic social teaching.'”

Pezzullo writes: “I am trying, with every trick I know how, to show you the invisible people. People like me, my husband and my daughter; the people on the bus and the prostitutes at the Friendship Room.” She is “pointing madly at people and crying out ‘Behold, the children of God,’ because these people are suffering. They are suffering because of the hardness of our hearts and heads, for lack of help society could have given them if only they’d seen, and been converted.”

I’ve tried to do something like that. Not so much to tell the stories, of which Pezzullo has, bless her, far more intimate knowledge. I want to explain how where we are in life blinds us to the lives of others and lets us make easy and self-serving judgments.

Life deals you cards

The reality, the easily observable reality, is that suffering and success have only the most ambiguous relation to virtue. The idea that economic success expresses moral virtue is ascribed to Calvinism, not Catholicism.

The Church recognizes how constrained are “their own life choices.” She rejects the libertarian myth of the moral free agent who can be condemned for failure. She knows the human heart too well. She knows that only God knows to what degree anyone bears responsibility for his failures. “Judge not” she knows to be a statement not to do what we can’t do.

“If you’re a 30-something-year-old person and you’re making minimum wage you probably failed at life. It is not that life dealt you a bad hand. Life does not deal you cards! It’s that you failed at life.” So said a minor political celebrity — a serious Christian — speaking on a once-major radio show a few years ago. Facebook just reminded me I’d written about it.

As I wrote then, life does deal you cards. It deals you your parents and genetic code, your extended family and your childhood friends, your class, race, and sex, your neighborhood and schools, the wiring in your brain and the chemicals in your body, your opportunities and connections, your chance encounters.

A tiny number get a royal flush, a few others get two pair or if they’re lucky three of a kind, and a lot get two twos or a random collection of cards hand after hand. They’re never going to win. I can’t think of a more idiotic idea than “Life does not deal you cards.”

What each of us middle-class American Christians ought to say when looking at the poor is: There but for the grace of God go I, followed by I am blessed, followed by God has blessed me that I may bless others.

Whatever you have is gift. Even your ability to work hard is a gift. You’ve been blessed. So don’t talk crap about the poor.

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