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The way we (would like to think) we were

People of a certain age, and of a certain background, when talking about poverty, have a tendency to minimize its impact.

“Hell, we didn’t have anything, but we didn’t even know we were poor,” they might say, and sage heads all around nod in agreement.

“We didn’t have television, or the internet.  We made our own diversion from stuff we found in alleys: a ball of tape for a baseball, an old broom handle for a bat.  We always had enough to eat, though.  We just made do.  We didn’t whine about our lives like the kids do nowadays.”

Two things strike me about such sentiments.  One is the inevitable filter of childhood memories.  We tend to remember things as much better than we thought they were at the time we experienced them; the farther away we get in time, the better things were.  Add the fact that, as children, we had a kind of natural optimism engendered by the fact that we weren’t responsible for keeping things above water.  It’s a certainty that our parents didn’t remember those times in such glowing terms.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about abject poverty; people who lived through that rarely even bring it up.  These are typically the lower middle class (working class, if you’re a socialist) reminiscing about days of yore.

The second thing that strikes me is the implicit sense of smugness, as if we were somehow superior to the young people of today.  I say “we” because I, too, come from that history; born in a refugee camp, I came to the US on the boat with my parents.

But what I feel, instead of smugness, is mostly good luck.

True, we didn’t have TV.  Hell, it was just invented.  Every block in my neighborhood had two or three houses with television; every other block someone knew of someone who had a color TV.  The internet simply didn’t exist.  There was radio, and the daily newspaper, and you could take in a movie twice a month or so.  Some of the theaters downtown even had AC, but you might pay a buck or more there; it was typically 25 cents elsewhere.  For anything else, you relied on the rumor mill.

The point is, we really had nothing to compare our lives with.  Like children everywhere, we looked around us, and thought that was what normal was.  You wore hand-me-downs because it was stupid to throw away perfectly good clothes.  You walked everywhere or took a bus because buses were ubiquitous and frequent, and cost pennies.  You’d cross the street to avoid some people, others would cross the street to avoid you.  Occasionally, if you saw someone coming, you’d turn around quickly, and hope you hadn’t been seen.  But nobody gunned you down (unless you happened to be black, and then it was open season).

I have to say, if I want to be scrupulously honest, that we whined as much as anyone today, though we called it grousing, or pissing and moaning.  There was one kind of angst, though, that we didn’t have a lot of, and that was class envy.

Rich kids, if we even knew of any, just seemed incompetent, had to have everything done for them, judging from stereotypes in the movies and comic books; we felt sorry for them, though we had no real idea of how they lived.  We envied guys with construction jobs, or steady work in a factory.

In today’s connected world we all know how everyone else lives, or rather how commercial interests would like us to believe everyone else lives, so we’ll want to buy their stuff.  We are probably the most propagandized and pitched bunch of humans in history, and, for the first time ever, we’re in it all together, all of humanity, pretty much everywhere.  As a result, it’s very easy to become envious of others, even if we don’t have it so bad ourselves, from an objective point of view.

Why is that?

It’s because we’re humans; it’s what we do.  We are the social species par excellence.  There are no authenticated cases of feral humans, that is, humans who have grown up without the company of any other humans, anywhere, at any time in history.  I say this with full knowledge of the alleged cases, none of which stand up to scrutiny.  We’re hard wired to be keenly aware of our situation relative to other humans around us, our place in society, if you will.  Add to that the fundamental concept of fairness (and not just human apparently!) that informs our moral and ethical rules, and poverty becomes a relative thing.

In short, we weren’t any better or wiser then than young people (or old ones for that matter) today, just less informed.

For the first 2.5 million years of our existence as a distinct species, we lived in groups of fewer than a hundred people, all of whom were of roughly equal status; when we interacted with other groups, they weren’t much different either.  Still, forget the paradise of the noble savage; the latest studies suggest hunter-gatherers lives were filled with conflict and jealousy as much as ours, but they didn’t see global disparities, and certainly nothing like the magnitude of the differences we see today.  That, and the hard fact that killing someone put a significant dent in the work force, which for them had an optimum size within a pretty small range, kept actual killing at low levels.

Not us, more’s the pity.  Fortunately, we’re intelligent.

Aren’t we?


9 thoughts on “The way we (would like to think) we were

  1. I am guilty of some of those same thoughts you describe, and would love to spend a long night rambling about them in some seedy bar!

    I recently read ‘Far from the Tree,’ Andrew Solomon’s major work on the sociology behind gifted, exceptional, and very damaged children and their relationships with their parents and their culture. The book made me cry many times. One narrative that stuck with me is this:

    ‘I once accompanied a Russian artist to visit his elderly mother in Moscow. When we arrived, we found her watching a Soviet propaganda movie from the 1940s. I said, ‘Nadezhda Konstantinova, you were sent to the Gulag in that exact time..and now you sit around watching that for entertainment? She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. ‘But it was my youth,’ she said.

    Forgive us our blinders—I cannot help but miss the past and fear the future.

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