O poverty, thou hast been a perennial scourge! Lives are battered, happiness stifled, creativity destroyed, and freedoms are eradicated by your tragedy!
Is poverty evil? Or, granting that poverty has become a “sine qua non” of our human scheme of things (lending credence to Matthew 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you”) – is poverty a “necessary” evil?
To say that poverty or the scourge of deprivation and penury is evil is to presuppose that it is attributed to a source or cause. If the impoverishment of one is due to an unjust action or wrong-doing by another, then poverty is a moral evil which is caused by another person, if not institution.
If poverty is indeed evil, then there must be some culpability behind it – some wrong-doing that causes such human tragedy to happen. It can be assumed, hence, that for the manifold manifestations of poverty – unemployment, starvation, human trafficking, spiralling of crimes, etc. – there are wrong-doers or persons causing such scourge. Verily, George Bernard Shaw’s observation (in his 1907 brilliant play, “Major Barbara”) still resonates to our day: “The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.”
But wait, that poverty is evil is not the thesis of this piece. Rather, as my title “Coming to terms with my poverty” suggests, I’m about just unravelling my own wrenching experience of poverty and modestly grasp some meaning, if not draw some profound lessons therefrom.
Neither I’m out to justify my having been poor. Nor am I just trying to reason out, if not pinpoint the blame-worthy causes of my being poor. No, not at all. Because had I been born rich, would had it been likewise my disposition to unravel my being rich – or, my being free from the scourge of poverty?
I have been poor – then as now. I was born to a poor family. That’s the simple fact, and neither will I justify it nor blame my parents for being poor. Truth be told, when we were born into this world, we were not given the choice as to which family or parents (rich or poor) we would be born to. Because, if God had consulted me before being born, I would have – like anyone else, perhaps – chosen being born “with a silver spoon in the mouth.” St. Augustine cannot be more right when he said: “Deus creavit te sine te (God created you without you).”
Thus, here’s the story of my poverty.
As 9th to a brood of 10 (aside from two step-siblings prior to my mom and another one after, whom my father sired out of wedlock), I was born to poor parents – my father a carpenter with no fixed employment except for some occasional carpentry job contracts; and my mother, a seamstress to some Chinese families in our place.
In my third and fourth grades in elementary, I remember being sent by my parents to a Catholic hospital in our place, where my father then worked as resident carpenter, to work as kitchen dishwasher (oh, how I vividly remember washing those voluminous rectangular trays or patients’ dishes) to supplement my schooling.
In my fifth and sixth grades, to support my schooling, I was sent to work as a stay-in houseboy for a Chinese family, while simultaneously going to school. My daily morning routine before going to school was: wake up at 5:30 a.m. scrub the entire floor with coconut husk; clean and water the garden (including the fishpond); and wash the dishes, just before eating my breakfast and thereafter head for school.
When I entered the seminary at age 12, a kind-hearted benefactor answered for my monthly board-and-lodging, but my weekly allowance for personal necessities and miscellaneous expenses was shouldered by my parents, who then could hardly provide. Thus, in my high school seminary days, I can’t avoid recalling how, in not a few instances, I just contend watching my well-to-do peers being able to buy snacks at the canteen store. I would also shun going along with my peers on permitted free-time outings just to save, if any, on my scrimpy pocket-money allowance.
Then fast-forward to when I got out of the seminary and, barely after a year, got married.
In one of my past columns, I devoted a piece on “Our gruelling first five years of marriage,” wherein I ciphered our first five years as “enmeshed in poverty and intermittent joblessness, and full of struggles and challenges.”
But even likewise after our first five years of marriage, after my brief stint of overseas job, when I strayed into many roller-coaster rides of intermittent joblessness or job-hopping, life more often wound down to scarcity, penury, deprivation, or agonizing poverty.
Truth to admit, there were times when I would find myself precariously teetering on the edge of ending my life. Yes, in not a few instances that I find comfort in entertaining Plato’s admonition to get rid of our physical existence in order to be freed from life’s “cave of suffering.” But, every time I have such a morbid thought, I was always dissuaded with the greater truth that ridding my life would neither solve the problem nor do any good to my loved ones who will be left behind.
Looking back to my wrenching bout with poverty, the following lines I wrote in my personal journal sometime in the early ‘90s when I was in the height of agonizing despair make my heart cringe:
“It all has to do with this damn thing called ‘human suffering.’ In my case, it is suffering caused by penury, destitution, financial and material deprivation – as a child, as a student, as a bachelor, and finally as a family man. I ventured into seeking for answers from practically all areas of life. I tried philosophy – and I mused, ‘This is simply irrational. God is neither all-good nor all-powerful.’ What’s the use of prayers when they remain unanswered? For one, moral evils in this world remain rampant and unchecked – appropriately, at the most – by God. I drifted through all sorts of mediocrity, religious or otherwise. I didn’t bother going to church, yet I remained teaching Theology – simply for livelihood’s sake. To top it all, I even revolted against God – I threw out my small frame of the Sacred Heart and Rosary beads only to find myself gravely remorseful afterwards. Until, finally, I have learned to ACCEPT anything and everything that come my way, including death, and God. No, not passive acceptance for those things that I can change, but only for those that I cannot – and thus seek for meaning.”
Then, in my later times of seemingly cyclical impoverishment, let me cite (even with nostalgic pain) some of my other episodic moments of scarcity.
One, when my eldest son was already in college in a Catholic university and my other three younger sons were all in the seminary (two in the Minor Seminary and one was in the College Seminary), I became jobless for almost a year and I have to contend with occasional writing tasks for some friends or for small publications. I have to advise my eldest son to temporarily stop his studies, while my other three sons’ board-and-lodging back accounts in the seminary kept on spiralling. Gosh, how I, my wife and my eldest son have to bear the ordeal of a daily regimen of eggs and instant noodles as viand – in the morning, noon, and evening! During such period, I felt myself melting in utter humiliation and self-pity from wantonly borrowing from friends, and noticing that some were avoiding me and, worse, others wouldn’t care but give unsavory remarks.
Two, it really pains me reminiscing how my college seminarian-son was not allowed to take his final examinations and thus got an incomplete grade because of his pending account. The following semester he went out of the seminary, and I paid in full his balance upon getting his transcript of records – but, yes, with the “incomplete grade.”
Three, even also when my youngest son was about to finish his philosophy studies in a Manila seminary. Again, as I found myself jobless for some months, I could hardly provide his needs, much more his monthly fees and allowance – except laundering his clothes at home and I would deliver them weekly. I remember one morning, as I was on my way to my son to deliver his clothes, I was so deeply depressed that I had to drop by a bridge before proceeding to the seminary. With only a fare money in my pocket, I felt so broken hearted, devastated, useless, and at the same time so sorry and full of pity for my son – that I stood holding on the bridge railing, facing and looking over the river, as I curtly cried in pain. Suddenly, I felt a hand patting my back – it was a nun! She brought me to their nearby convent, she comforted me as I told her my story, and then she gave me a modest amount – and I headed then to the seminary for my son.
Observably, on hindsight, one underlying reason for my poverty or destitution – especially as a family man – was intermittent joblessness. Ask thee, despite my admittedly solid academic background (no less, having graduated “Magna Cum laude” from the College Seminary), why the heck had I been losing or hopping from one employment to another?
Let me reckon. Of the some nine or so employment entities I have joined, I was regularized as permanent employee only ONCE – and, of which I did quit (or resigned) due to, aside from personal reasons, labor and another issues, which prompted me to file a court case. Apart from said employment, I also quit on two other jobs – one was my Saudi overseas job when I decided to come home for good for my family’s sake; and the other one was a school which I decided to leave in favor of my Saudi job. All the other employments, mostly government agencies (after my years of teaching), did not care giving me permanent employment for reasons, I surmise, that either I do not know how to “toe the line” (to their irregular schemes) or I could not afford to “scratch their back.” And, whenever the national administration changes, and being with a “coterminous” status, I am expended or separated along with the outgoing head of the agency.
No regrets so. I may have quit in one or two jobs, or I may have been unwittingly bypassed or deprived of regular employment in several jobs, but I have remained intact or unspoiled in my integrity, in the significance of what I do, and more importantly, in my profound embrace of “meaning and purpose” and that’s happiness enough. Ah, I haven’t gotten rid yet of my old seminary ethos that “money isn’t everything”.
Now, looking back on my first- hand sordid experience of poverty, I’d like to draw the following insights or profound lessons:
1. Have I been or am I bitter about my agonizing poverty? Yes and No. Yes, admittedly for a time, because I have felt the suffering, the scarcity, the impoverishment or deprivation – especially in contrast to those who are morally debased and causing the deprivation of others. No, because I have survived, surpassed the debacle, and it made me tough and sturdy. No also, because the scourge of poverty has opened my eyes to the suffering of others and thus taught me to care for those who are similarly situated.
2. Poverty is not outrightly negative. While the Stoics spurn those who never experienced misfortune (Seneca once said: “Nothing seems to be more unfortunate than a man who has never had to face misfortune”), Friedrich Nietzsche averred that poverty or suffering can forge a higher form of humanity (Ubermensch or “superman”) by finding its meaning (Nietzsche wrote: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in suffering”).
From the theological perspective, God tolerates poverty in view of something good – that it could be an avenue for exercising generosity and compassion, or the “preferential option for the poor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2448).
3. Yes, in the eyes of others, I have been and am poor – simply for the fact that I am “less fortunate” or laden with scarcity. But in the eyes of God, we’re all equal – in dignity, self-worth, freedom, and unique purpose.
The biblical line, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God,” is undoubtedly construed as “spiritual poverty,” not material. Hence, we are “blessed” and worthy of the kingdom of God if we are deemed wanting, desirous, or in need of God.
4. Poverty and affluence are but relative concepts or realities. Having more or being rich doesn’t make the difference at all. “Being rich” is not measured in terms of material wealth as it is more with finding meaning, purpose, and happiness.
In sum, therefore, I think, reflecting on my impoverishment, I am better off having profoundly experienced – unwittingly or wittingly – the noble scourge of poverty than not.