Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

The Less Fortunate

on February 4, 2014

soup kitchen square

Over the last few years I have experienced what I would consider to be a certain amount of financial hardship. At the time I was laid off three years ago I had been making a very good salary; so good that my husband and I paid all our bills with what I made, and what he brought home was just gravy. We always had money in the bank, and we never thought twice about buying a new pair of shoes or going on vacation. Since the layoff I’ve been striving to make a living as a self-employed person, which has meant that sometimes I bring in money but most of the time I don’t. It has been an eye-opening experience to find out how much we can live without, and we have. It’s been a very long time since I thoughtlessly purchased anything, and my stuff has been wearing out – I recently had to let go of two pairs of winter shoes because they finally lost their soles. Last year we got rid of our 14-year-old artificial Christmas tree because it was falling apart; I decided we could go ahead and throw it out because I was convinced that our financial situation would be significantly better this year and we would get a new one. It wasn’t. This year, instead of a big tree, I found a 3’ pre-lit tree one at Wal-Mart and bought some miniature ornaments to go on it. From now on I will always think of Christmas 2013 as the year of the Wee Tree.

I’m not telling you this so that you will feel sorry for me. I have been through phases when I felt very sorry for myself indeed, and I was angry that things weren’t happening for me when I was working so hard. I felt like I deserved better, and maybe I did. Maybe I do. I still go through times when the fear of not having the money to pay the bills almost overwhelms me, and I have to fight to shake it off. And sometimes something happens that slaps me upside the head, and I realize how stupid I’ve been.

One of those times happened about six months after I’d been laid off. I was at the grocery store one evening when I was approached by a woman with two little girls in tow. She told me her husband was in the hospital up the street, and her car had broken down. I expected her to ask me for money, but she didn’t.  She asked if I would buy her some peanut butter and bread so she could feed her children.

There’s no way this woman could have possibly known that I was unemployed and watching every penny, and for a split second I thought about telling her about my own troubles. I thought I would say “I’m so sorry you’re having a hard time; so am I” and explaining how I would love to help, but I couldn’t. I didn’t do that, though. I looked at that woman, so desperate that she had to beg for help from a stranger in the grocery store, and I was ashamed of my initial selfish reaction. I told her yes, I would buy some bread and peanut butter for her. When she met me in the checkout line she had added some cheap laundry detergent and a couple of Lunchables – items I had not agreed to purchase. She put them in my basket without looking at me; I’m sure she was afraid I would refuse her. It reminded me of a pet who has done something wrong and avoids catching their owner’s eye for fear of getting into trouble. It broke my heart to see a human being do the same thing.

I paid for her items without comment. When I handed the bags to her she said a very simple “thank you”, and left with her girls. As I walked to my car I saw her heading towards the hospital, weighed down by shopping bags and children. And of course in that moment I realized how very fortunate I was; my misfortune was nothing compared to that woman’s. I had a home to go to and a car to take me there and a healthy husband that shared my burdens. I had nothing to complain about.

I’ve had many ups and downs since that incident in the grocery store. I go through phases where I am so grateful for what I have it takes my breath away, and then I get caught up again in the stress and the worry. Not being able to replace things that have worn out or have broken, and not being able to do even the everyday things like get the oil changed in my car or have my hair done gets really, really old. Sometimes it gets to me. I’m human. I’m sure I’m not alone.

But then I go down to the soup kitchen and serve hot food to dozens of homeless men like I did today, and my perspective clears again. I look at them and wonder how they came to be where they are. Some are obviously dealing with mental and emotional challenges, but most of seem as aware of things as I am. I wonder what decisions they made, or what life circumstances happened to them to land them in front of me, asking for a third and fourth refill of their soup bowls. I wonder if this is the only meal they’ll have today.

Some of the men come prepared with containers to take soup away with them. One guy had a stainless steel kitchen canister, the kind you’d put sugar or flour in to sit on your counter. We filled another guy’s big plastic tupperware container; he said the soup was for his supper the next day. One man came up to the counter wrapped in a blanket; he was given a coat to wear before he left. Many of the men got pairs of thick socks, something we’re told is a vital need in the homeless community. Socks.  Think about that.

I’m not telling you all this so you’ll think I’m great for spending time at the soup kitchen. What I’m ashamed to tell you is that I seriously considered not going today. Why? Because my business has picked up suddenly and I’m busy. I had lots of things to get done today and I almost convinced myself that I didn’t have the time. That would have been a huge mistake.

I’ve finally realized that I’m not helping the poor people with whom I come into contact – they are helping me. I learn from their determination, their courage, their humility, and even from their willingness to be “served” by privileged people like myself. I imagine that sometimes they must feel like animals at the zoo to be gazed at and wondered about by the visitors who come for a time and then leave to go back to their comfortable middle class lives. Some of them smile at me with their eyes and tell me they are blessed when I say “How are you?”  I feel so inadequate to their need. I spoon out soup and try to treat them with dignity and respect while inevitably comparing my circumstances with theirs and feeling profoundly relieved I’m not them.

I know now that I need these opportunities to teach me what being “less fortunate” really means.  It has nothing to do with how much money I make. I need the example of these people who can smile in the face of their difficult lives to remind me that no matter what happens it is up to me to decide if I will respond to my own difficulties with anger or with acceptance. I need them to keep my vision focused on the world around me and not solely on myself. This is a lesson that I must constantly learn, and one that I am in danger of allowing myself to forget in my newfound business. I hope I don’t let that happen.

**********

Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: Jeffrey Beall via photopin cc

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One response to “The Less Fortunate

  1. Carolyn Cook says:

    I really enjoy your writing, Amanda. Thanks for sharing your journey. ❤

    Like

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