Grateful, not resentful

Many years ago, when I was either still attending university or during that first couple years after, while visiting my mom for one of the holidays, she handed me a manila envelope. “I was cleaning some things out, and I found these papers. I don’t know if they’re important, but it’s old school things I thought you might like.”

My mom is one of the people from whom I inherited my own packrat tendencies (which I have been fighting most of my adult life), so I knew if I looked at them while she was watching and decided they weren’t worth keeping, that she would retrieve them and hang onto them for years. So I always took whatever weird stuff she offered me and waited until I got home to review it.

The envelope contained about 20 sheets of paper. Two were report cards from different grades. Neither was an official end-of-term report card. Both were midterm “advisory” report cards. “Your child’s grade will probably be this if work does not change.” Most of the other papers were even less archive-worthy. Most contained no person information at all: announcements about an upcoming parent-teacher night, for instance.

But there were a couple that were revelations. There was a letter to my parents explaining that our family qualified to have a charity pay for my first pair of eyeglasses back in grade school. There were some papers related to a free lunch program during another part of grade school.

Until I read those papers, I had had no idea. I remembered, during those particular grades, that about once a month Mom would hand me a sealed envelope which I had to take to the school office, where I would be given lunch tickets for myself and my little sister. I thought everyone’s parents had to fill out a couple forms for lunch tickets. And I guess I just assumed there was a cheque in there, somewhere.

I knew that there were things we couldn’t afford. But other kids’ parents were also frequently saying, “We can’t afford that” or “When you get a job and can pay for it yourself, you can have a fill-in-the-blank.” So I didn’t think much about it. It never occurred to me that we were poor.

Of course, we couldn’t be poor! Poor people lived in shacks or in ghettos. We lived in ordinary parts of each of the small towns we moved to as my dad’s work demanded. We owned a car and a pickup truck. Poor people didn’t have jobs, or didn’t have regular jobs, anyway. They were always begging or looking for work. Or if they were “bad, lazy poor people” they were always waiting for their next Welfare cheque. My dad had a job. He’d been working for the same company for as long as I could remember, so we couldn’t be poor. We just weren’t rich, that’s all.

Certainly by the time I was in High School I had a much better idea of the broad spectrum of economic status that families inhabited. I understood that most of my childhood my dad had been “working class” rather than true middle class. But I also knew that the old lower, middle, and upper class division of economic status was a gross oversimplification.

And somehow, I had never figured out that we had taken assistance. I think the shock was mostly because of how hotly my dad frequently ranted about the evils of people who depended on charity. The almost stereotypical way he sneered at programs like welfare and food stamps because they “took money from hard working people.”

That attitude, which was frequently echoed by other adults in my community—especially at church social functions—had always seemed weird to me. During Sunday School lessons or the Sunday sermon, we would be taught that Jesus expected us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and take care of the sick. Yet at the church potluck, people who actually took handouts were talked about almost as if they were in league with the devil.

Why the resentment? Everyone needs help some time. There should be no shame in needing a hand of any kind (I hate that cliche about hand-up vs handout) once in a while. The proper response to getting a little help is gratitude. And the proper response when you have been the one helping, is to tell the person, “if you want to pay me back, just promise when you see someone else who needs help, you’ll offer what you can.”

Resentment and condescencion corrupt and destroy the soul, leaving only emptiness behind.

Gratitude and charity do the opposite.

So, go feed your soul.

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