A few days ago I met with my ex. He bought me breakfast, and we talked about our 18 year old, and as we separated in the parking lot, he started to tear up. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “If there’s anything you need, you know you can just ask, right?”
I responded as gently as I could, “I tried that for 20 years and it didn’t work, did it? I asked for contact and communication and I never got it.” I was a little angry and I felt sorry for him.
I was also being a little cruel; his offer was sincere. He was offering help because I’m living below poverty and I’m on food stamps. Some part of his social identity is offended that his child’s mother is living “this way,” which is a code for “beneath me.” Sadly, he has no idea that he means anything like this; he was offering added support, and he meant it, and he feels sorry for me.
I pointed out to him that it’s hard to hear those offers of support when one is at the bottom, and all one heard on the way down were warnings and silence. Sympathy, pity, and charity are hard things to need and harder to depend on. They wear out and go away. One must live always with the sense that this support is unearned.
In middle-class white America, one is supposed to “earn” and “deserve” everything. This is oddly un-Christian and certainly un-Protestant. Grace, in Protestant theology, is never earned or deserved. Yet one of the oldest Protestant theologies, often attributed to John Knox, is based on the idea that favor (good things) is bestowed by God on the elect, on those who are chosen, who therefore “deserve” favor.
Poverty in America is often labeled as the result of laziness, stupidity, poor judgment, lack of ambition. Mine is in part the result of choosing to do what is right in my life and seeing money as secondary. As a result, much of my work (50-60 hours in a given week) is unpaid or underpaid. Because I don’t have a “career” job, one that I can stick with for 20+ years, I’m also seen as a dilettante. All of my jobs are interconnected; it’s what one friend calls a patchwork career. And all of them are about communication and pastoral support. But they are not “regular” jobs with predictable paychecks and benefits, and this lack of dependability reduces the level of respect I receive from many people.
Now I find myself at the low end of the income scale, yet still partaking of the privileges that being middle class, white, and highly educated convey. These privileges come with expectations, and failing to fulfill the expectations leads to judgment manifesting as disappointment from some and disdain from others.
One has to wonder if this judgment contributes to the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s not only money that separates segments of culture; it’s also the expectations placed upon us by ourselves and others. Those expectations reflect class and status; they are unconscious triggers of social placement. Our expectations of ourselves and others place us in relation to one another. It’s important to question those relational realities from time to time, even in parking lots turning down charity from the ex.