There are many in our community who work to make life better, at least a little better, for those who struggle so hard but nothing ever seems to work out for them. Some from the mouthy edge of the right wing blather on about how anyone can make it in America if they are self reliant and work hard. Those who don’t must be lazy, satisfied with sponging off society. How cruelly absurd is that? At the other end of mouthiness are some of my “old time” liberal friends who want to do everything for the less fortunate because they are so obviously incapable of doing anything for themselves. I wonder if they realize how close they are to the prejudices of the right wingers?
My work brings me into lives of the poor at times of emotionally traumatizing events, usually death, that disrupt whatever sense of order they had. What I’ve come to recognize is the presence of a subculture of persons among the poor who have one thing in common, a lifelong practice of making bad choices when obviously better and simpler choices are at hand. It’s a subculture because they know each other as either best friends or worst enemies. They socialize together out of sight of the good people of Walla Walla, and they have an amazingly high speed telegraph system that keeps them informed about each other.
Among them they share a strong desire for a better life supported by plans to make it happen, but the plans tend to be complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions that will work only if a series of unlikely things happen in the right order. The result is often a crash that leaves behind a pile of rubble, sometimes evidenced by the junk lying all over the yard, filling a shack, or stuffed into corners of a room. There are some strange bright spots. Thanks to car dealer ads touting easy payments with bad or no credit, a surprising number of the subculture have at least one new truck or SUV, so, if nothing else, they can ride around town in the comfort of a middle class image. The same is true of rent to own big screen televisions and other household gizmos. The cycle of acquire, repossess, and reacquire, is normal. If that’s true for trucks and televisions, it’s also true for sexually intimate personal relationships. It’s the way things are, the way the world works. Decisions are made with little thought given to what might be needed to carry them out. A weekend trip to Seattle lurches out of town with a few dollars in one’s pocket, not a clue about how much it will cost, or whether the car can make it. A lifelong commitment is made with a new girlfriend or boyfriend without the slightest idea of what will be required to make it work next week. A new career is begun with a part time job and only a dim idea of what a disciplined work life requires.
Illness, injury, prescription drugs, street drugs and alcohol are often, but not always, underlying conditions. It would be callous to write them off as a bunch of addicts, and let it go at that. For some it’s what’s needed to dull the pain of daily life. For others it’s a way of life that seems normal, it’s what everybody they know does, as normal as playing a round of golf, working out at the Y, or having coffee with friends at Starbucks. Many are on disability because, for them, they really are emotionally or physically disabled, or both.
Does it have to be this way? Consider the long history of beggar king stories that chronicle the lives of subcultures like this. The tales go back for centuries. Or how about the gang in Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”? Our own westward expansion was fueled in part by members of a similar subculture launching into the wilderness with poorly formed plans and few resources expecting to make something wonderful happen. We idealize it now, but for many individuals and families it was a train wreck of an adventure in which poor decisions in Ohio led one on to make poor decisions in Indiana, and then Iowa and then Nebraska. The good decision makers followed on behind.
That doesn’t answer the question, does it have to be this way? I don’t know the answer. Maybe you do. In the several hours I have with emotionally traumatized persons, we can sometimes work out a few simple decisions about what to do next. But as far as I can tell, simplicity soon gives way to complex plans relying on the improbable, and life returns to its chaotic normal aided and abetted by a network of friends and enemies for whom that normal is just the way the world works. I’ll give them credit. They are, for the most part, survivors who persevere in their own screwball ways. Moreover, and contrary to right wing, left wing biases, they are self reliant, just not self reliant in ways that are likely to change their condition in life for the better.