Have no shame in need

People are worried. Everyone in my family and most of my friends are having some sort of stress from loss of income or potential loss of income. I think that some of this fear is about the actual difficulty and maybe even suffering that will result from financial upheaval. However, I have a hunch that a lot of the fear is more related to what will happen if they become “needy.”  They are worried about loss of identity and experiencing shame that they didn’t manage their money well enough to get through this mess without needing help.

They don’t understand where this thing is going. Neither do I, of course. We are in uncharted territory.

On the bright side, we have always been in uncharted territory, but we usually can plod along under the illusion that things are going to keep working as they have. But even in the best of times, people get sick, lose their jobs, lose their loved ones.

Bad stuff always happens, but it is different now. At least now we know that there is uncertainty, that the bad news might catch up with us too.

The good news is that when the bad news does become personal, we have lots of company. There are drawbacks to that, because our usual ways of helping “the needy” are supposed to be painless and convenient. Now, we may have to start giving beyond our comfort level;  more frightening, we may have to receive help. More disorienting, even middle class people who volunteer at soup kitchens might start seeing people they know on the other side of the pot.

But on the bright side, it is more clear now than it has been in my lifetime, that the system doesn’t work very well, and people get screwed as a result of that.

And regardless of that, we all need each other. A few years ago I had back surgery and needed to call on all sorts of help. It was a wonderful and humbling experience, which included my parents staying for a week, followed by my ex-partner staying for a few days (paying me back from when I took care of her after she was hurt in a car crash, also long after we had broken up), and my coworkers taking turns bringing me dinner every night for two weeks after that. It was transformative.

This is a time of year when many help “the needy” and for as long as I’ve been paying attenting, “the needy” as a group have been pretty well-contained in the US. Sure, there have been fluctuations and a general increase in poverty that has become more pronounced in recent years as concentration of wealth has intensified. But now it is different. “The needy” have escaped from the margins of society. We don’t know how far they will spread. Maybe they will even get to our tidy middle-class neighborhoods, like the one where I grew up and where I live now.

I should pause and acknowledge that I’m writing this from a pretty comfortable place. 2008 was a pretty wild year, in which I lost my sweet apartment in Olympia, lost all my possessions, almost lost my dad, and moved back to Sacramento to live with my parents after a month of homelessness in which I was very fortunate to have plenty of hospitality from friends and churchmates. In my case, the trigger of all this was a freak allergy (yarrow) but the results were the same: I was needy.

It was a deeply disorienting experience that really challenged my sense of who I was, especially since part of my identity was not caring about material stuff so much.

More recently, I lost the closest thing I had to steady employment and now I have to rely on sales of my new book for nearly all of my income. This will require a whole lotta hustling in the form of a five-week national book tour Jan 2 to Feb 5. I also have a variety of grant applications on my radar to do various sorts of projects around developing a more just and sane way of producing and distributing food.

Still, the worst thing that I have to contemplate for the near future is that I may have to drop out of grad school. That would be pretty bad, as I believe that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing in the world, and it is providing me with a lot of useful information about how I can help address the worsening crisis. Even so, it’s not like I have to worry about where I’m going to live with my three kids or my disabled parent next month. Or next week.

There should be no shame in needing help. Things go wrong, and the only blame that we have when it overtakes us is that we were complacent. We ignored the warning signs and allowed ourselves to detatch from the consequences of our actions. We’ve been playing a competitive game for too long, and the house odds are against us. It’s time to find another game, in which it is OK and expected that we ask for help, and in which we are not constantly trying to win at each others’ expense.

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1 Response to Have no shame in need

  1. Susan McLeod says:

    This column is very powerful – we experienced a setback and it’s difficult to not feel shame and loss of identity. Friends unwittingly make hurtful comments, such as “why would you ever sell this house?”

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