It breaks my heart to realize that the economic deprivation of my past and present does not simply limit me in terms of what I can buy and what resources I have access to. It also limits who I can love and who can love me. Who I can form relationships with, and who is willing to form relationships with me. How much I feel safe opening myself to others, and how much my openness is accepted and welcomed. My class, my financial status, insinuates itself into every aspect of every relationship I have- and if it is not or cannot be dealt with appropriately there, that relationship cannot exist.[…]
…for my sanity and security, for the sake of an emotionally heathy relationship, for the mere fact of wanting to be with someone who treats me as a human being with valid and real experiences, my close relationships have to be very carefully formed.
When I say that class is part of my life in every moment and in every way, this is what I mean. I cannot even do something so basic to the human experience as to love someone, to befriend someone, to form a relationship of some kind with another human being, without considering how class will play into it. And this is why awareness of class and classism are so important to me. —classragespeaks.tumblr.com, ‘On Love and Money’
Imagine, if You Will
Can you imagine a life where every single person you knew and met and interacted with was more economically privileged than you?
Can you imagine the frustration of being invited places you can’t afford, and not being able to participate in basic social interactions because of where they hang out, and how much it costs for you to get there? Imagine they think nothing of cover charges and door fees that are more than you make in a month, and just blankly do not understand or remember your situation—and when you remind them of it, they look at you with pity, like you’re some stray animal with ragged fur.
Imagine for a moment that all their advice comes from a place of assuming the kind of social connections and Ivy-League educations they all take for granted, and being able to rely on support from rich relatives. Imagine that they may have heard of people in your economic position, these ‘middle-class’ folk, but they’re most often either the butt of jokes or held up as an example of ‘other have it worse than me, so I should cheer up.’ Imagine that they have never really been the places you go for medical care and food and don’t understand how they work, or have all kinds of misunderstandings.
Imagine that they’ve been told since they were born by everyone and everything around them that if middle-class people worked harder, weren’t so lazy and negative and unmotivated, they’d be rich like them. Imagine these super-rich people being told that they can do whatever they want, and having that be true, and taking it for granted that everyone has the essential freedoms to jet around the globe on a whim or take a year off to study with a master painter for a hobby. Imagine they’ve been told that they are succeeding because they’re working so hard through all of this, while never having to worry about cleaning their enormous houses or doing any chores, even as a child.
Imagine that at first, you take their offers to pay for you. But as you get older you start to realize that your relationships with them change when this happens. They give you unsolicited advice more freely, expect more explanations, ask more favors, and at the same time you feel more uncomfortable asking for favors, or setting boundaries with them. If you try to talk to them about this behavior they get offended and sometimes pull away, or laugh at you for being so sensitive and paranoid.
In fact, any conversation you try to have about this difference risks offending them seriously. And when they get offended, they get condescending and personal, and pass judgment on how you talk and your feelings and how you’re only hurting yourself.
Imagine gradually talking less and less about your everyday struggles, meanwhile listening to their grumbles about trying to find good nannies for their children or yacht repairs, and thinking about how the emergency replacement of your HVAC cost you your vacation this year. Or how you worry about the rumors at work that a bigger company is in talks to buy yours, and this would result in restructuring, cutbacks, maybe even shutting down your entire office and either moving people across the country to keep their jobs or letting them go, and what it would mean to your kids to have to change schools, how your spouse would feel about quitting his or her lower-paying job and the stress of finding a new one and the possibility of resentment straining your relationship.
You know from past experiences when you talk about these problems that you’ll get Those Looks, those uncomfortable expressions, and sometimes that nails-on-a-chalkboard condescending advice of the ‘let them eat cake’ variety that just rubs your nose in the gap between your experiences that you never forget and they never remember.
Imagine longing to have friendships where you can just be yourself, and maybe disassociating yourself from a few and trying new social groups and meeting about your interests, but finding that nowhere—nowhere—is there anyone even remotely close to your economic status to hang out with. They all live somewhere far distant to you, and don’t have time and energy for socializing, let’s say. For whatever reason. And you suspect you’ve taken on the aspects and mannerisms, the veneer of rich people from hanging out with them all your life, and would bring to people more your class the same discomfort and resentment you feel toward them.
Not one thing or another, and terribly lonely. But knowing that every single time you make friends, there’s a huge difference that affects your whole life. That all your stresses and worries and fears and feelings might be looked down on, or grounds for stigma or judgment. And you feel yourself constantly having to prove your worth and value and yet still being treated paternalistically, or like people’s Good Deed or Charity Work, like friendship with you is an enormous favor they’re granting you. You don’t know how much of that is just your own jaded point of view from truly exploitive and controlling past relationships, your own wounds, or the reality that is so easy to deny for rich people that keeps hitting you in the face like a rotten dead fish.
Liar Until Proven Innocent
I have absolutely no income, in the cold terrifying limbo void of two years of fighting to try to get Social Security Disability Income. I’m waiting on a hearing date, and it’s completely out of my hands. I have done everything I can to get an early judgment. Meanwhile my symptoms are worsening under increasing stress and just how long I’ve been putting up with this.
The last of my dead husband’s life insurance is gone. The house is gone. I’m down to the last of my Roth IRA, cashed out at heavy expense. I’m selling off all the rest of my possessions worth anything. I’m silently begging the fates not to do anything to my car, because I live twenty miles from the nearest public transportation.
I’m squatting in an abandoned RV, which will probably never move again, has no insulation and no heat. It’s not meant to be lived in in the winter. And I have to dump and flush the wastewater tanks weekly. Many of my things are in hard sealed plastic containers because there’s a constant battle to keep the mice at bay, and still I regularly find their droppings on my plates, in my underwear drawer and shower, colored electric turquoise from the poison in the bait traps.
Another thing you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone is financial privacy. I have to disclose my income and financial statements to get health care, to get food. On top of that, everything I own, have, buy, wear is scrutinized and questioned by unthinking middle-class people when I start to come out about my poverty—and the implication is that I’m lying. I can’t be poor because I don’t ‘look’ poor.
If you could do just one thing for people in pain that would be more supportive, it’s this: don’t question choices you don’t have to live with unless your opinion is specifically asked.
For one thing, I have a lot fewer choices than you do. A lot. And most of them are between bad alternatives, and I have to pay the price. There’s more than one kind of price, too. It’s not all just a numbers game. If you’ve ever had to deal with people and situations that were just not nasty for the sake of saving a few dimes, you know that sometimes you pay extra to not put up with that crap—well, often I not only don’t have that choic, I’m dealing with that nastiness all the time. It’s little wonder I’m prickly as a porcupine all the time.
I resent having to explain all my choices and the things I own, being treated as if I might be lying. That’s not a good basis for the trust that’s essential to a friendship. Whether you mean it or not. I resent having to explain them to people in a position to deny me food or health care on a regular basis—talk about terrifying. I resent that feeling of paranoia about everything I wear, the choice I have to make. Passing for middle-class means safety for me. It means dressing a little better because I bought nicer-looking clothes at Goodwill, and feeling better about myself, which when I’m in this situation where I’m on the bottom rung, anywhere I can get a little self-esteem I’ll take it.It also means dirty looks from people, and assumptions, and being treated like a liar when I try to get help or support. Sometimes all my choices are bad.
Sometimes I spend a little—very little—to get something nice for myself to combat and maybe push away the constant feeling of deprivation and running out, and I sure know how to get a lot of pleasure out of $5. Even if I always feel a lot of shame and guilt and terror about the least indulgence, especially when something essential breaks afterward, something I can’t legitimately do without. Like I’m drilling holes in the bottom of a sinking boat even if I’m just taking myself to an art museum, for fuck’s sake, to see an exhibition about a photographer living in a homeless tent community in the Pacific Northwest. Or paying a little for a website that gives me a platform and voice that are better for my long-term mental health and self-esteem than a shelf of self-help and a pharmacy of psychoactive chemicals.
I’m paranoid about sharing these pleasures with other people, even here in this way with one cool remove to protect me from spring-loaded questions that undermine a sense of belief in me. I feel shame and hurt that both my struggles and my pleasures are problematic conversations to have with people who don’t get it. I guess some part of me hopes that if I write about it enough I’ll find a way to explain it that will flick on the light in people’s eyes that doesn’t take more than a few seconds, and doesn’t make me feel suspected of lying or invalidated.
I know, too, that all this is baggage that gets in my way, too, that overshadows how I treat other people I just met. That my guardedness could be taken personally, too—that the suspicions and protectiveness I can’t afford to go without may make other people feel like I don’t trust them and that it’s out of proportion to who they are. I hate that, but again, it’s a choice between two bad choices. I can’t afford to not be extremely careful with new people, and it can feel a bit like a Mexican standoff, and leave the other person hurt and bewildered. Because just talking about the class difference can lead to problems just as not talking about it can, but much quicker. And most of the time I just don’t have the energy, which is another good reason for ‘passing.’
I’m sick of friendships that cost the earth of me, where I give the kind of validation and support I’m longing for, and hearing my praises sung, and being told how ‘strong’ I am, but when I show my weakness and hurt I’m chastised (condescendingly) out of it, as if my feelings are some sort of mistake or moral flaw. Wouldn’t that drive you crazy? If you were expected to always be the very best version of yourself? That’s not a friendship, that’s an unpaid job.
Even other disabled people I’ve met who get disability income (or have families supporting them) don’t have the same experience I have, as I learned recently when once again a support group tanked for me because everyone there has some form of income or support and I don’t. Not fantastic income, but they’re not in the space where I’ve been for the last ten years. And that’s what I need support for. I’ve watched the money run out as I struggled and struggled and struggled to work over and over again and failed and failed, and felt like a failure, like I was worthless and valueless, like I was lazy, good for nothing. It was shaming and humiliating to finally have to accept the heartbreaking reality that I’m too disabled to work, and increasingly so. After all these painful, isolating years, I applied for Social Security Disability Income.
They denied me, again and again and again. This speaks to all those insecurities and shames and whispers of invalidation in my head that I’m just lazy, that I’m not trying hard enough. I’m fighting both myself and the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review—hell, even our entire culture with its extreme mental pictures of what poverty and disability look like. I’m considered a liar until proven innocent by an institution of people with hearts hardened by government work and suspicion, with a vested interest and maybe even a mandate to keep me from ever getting income.
No one I have ever met is without income, without a safety net, without relatives and friends to offer support, and has been on their own without sufficient income to sustain themselves for as long as I have. Just as long-term abuse tends to leave a different type of PTSD (Complex PTSD) than one single assault, the longer this traumatic situation goes on, the more deep its mark on me.
I think of stories of people who lived through the Great Depression who for the rest of their lives hoarded soap slivers (and everything else). I think about Audrey Hepburn, who spoke of how her childhood living poor and in fear in Holland during World War Two learned that hunger was something she could just overcome through willpower, and going her whole life looking that thin. And waiting until too late to get medical treatment for pain inside her that she was just enduring.
Even people who’ve been through hard financial times seem to have shook the dust off their feet, and fall into this same relationship pattern with me, an unequal relationship.
No one I meet seems to understand the complexity of a cross-class friendship, and there’s an expectation that I’m to accommodate and care for their feelings in any conflict over this subject that is uncomfortable for them, while burying and dismissing my own fears and resentments as threatening to them.
Emotional Labor, Educational Labor
Just recently I was introduced to the concept of ‘emotional labor,’ particularly in the context of friendships but also in the workplace, where (possibly because of stereotypes about your identified gender) you’re expected to do the bulk of the emotional work in your friendships, particularly with people of another gender. It’s just always assumed and it’s always been that way.
I find that in relationships with people who are more economically privileged—and even more so if they’re not disabled—if I have problems relating to them because of these things, it’s expected that I’m supposed to explain it to them in assertive I-statement language that caters to their feelings and avoids any talk of that four-letter word Privilege or in any way makes them uncomfortable. I’m expected to be patient and explain, breaking it down more and more, until I realize this person really does not want to hear me, and feeling resentful and hurt that I wasted all this time and effort—AGAIN.
I’m not just having to educate myself, I’m having to educate the people around me, who are so far behind me in understanding these things I’ve been studying about myself for years in search of solace. Eventually dropping consumption of news and politics and almost all reading and video-watching for entertainment in order to focus on learning what I have to in order to prioritize my survival.
And still I find myself having to convince people who are really uncomfortable with even discussing my reality, and feeling resentful, because at the end of the conversation they go back to their more economically privileged life and I go back to the 24/7 nightmare that is my fight to try to live as comfortably as I can afford with my limited financial, physical, and psychological resources.
I can’t have shallow acquaintanceships anymore. I can’t waste the energy. And the questions people ask when they first meet me all make sense and are surface, shallow information about someone—if they’re not me. “Where do you live?” “What do you do for a living?” “Is your family around here?”
People take for granted how much getting to know someone, socializing, these socialized systemic ways of relating, have an undercurrent of subtle classism to them. They’re made for and by people who aren’t like me, through years of unquestioned practice. These questions, as with any personal questions, touch on a life that is magnificently packed with pain and anger and suffering that they don’t want to hear about right out of the box. TMI, right? Feels like emotional dumping just to hear a sliver of my life, and instantly I get associated with discomfort and forced intimacy that they don’t want to match. The kind of people who are attracted to me are the people who like to have friendships with someone who has such pervasive problems that they look saintly by comparison, and they’re never wrong, never the problem. I’m the scapegoat. And I can also be the ego prop for when this person wants to feel good about themselves by telling me what to do. I’ve been jaded by too many of this kind of relationship. I’m wary of anyone who’s too interested in me when they hear about my circumstances or past, and is quick to tell me about me.
But I can’t risk hiding and getting rejected later when I find out that any new person, like most, isn’t really equipped with the skills and knowledge and psychological bandwidth to have a cross-class friendship. Even if I’m doing most of the labor, as I’m used to, at some point, the other person really has to show up and match me, and I don’t mean by picking up the tab or helping me out financially or offering me pity or charity.
It would be worth a thousand lunch tabs, worth all the fivers in the WORLD to me if just once, just once, I met someone who could do the stuff that money can’t buy. Who could consistently practice humility before my challenges, and believe me, always believe me, and listen, and not try to fix me or make me feel better, nor exaggerate how awful I have it.
The Three Magic Qualities of Support
I’m lucky I have found an online support group, not for this (because let’s face it, there aren’t support groups for poverty, poor people can’t afford the time and energy even if they’re not disabled) but for one of my other problems in a problematic life. There’s magic there that isn’t even in other online support forums. When I was briefly made a moderator there, I got to go behind the curtain and find out the magic ingredients, why this works where every other support group and most friendships fail for me.
I wondered if they’d even talk about it, but I knew there was something to learn. And learn I did, and it took my breath away.
One thing is, there’s not a sense of hierarchy. All the moderators are posting members, the people who hang out there enough that they can take the time to moderate, and are selected by other moderators, who know through years of intuition and practice who is good moderator material.
But the main ingredients were three qualities that were discussed as essential to being moderators. Everyone was invited to share their experiences of when they feel they’ve experienced and given these with others. Through everyone’s sharing of what they knew and felt about these things, the words became more than buzzwords, they became values, and have stayed with me ever since as the things I want and cherish the most in a friend or support person.
Are you ready? ’Cause they’re awesome.
Sounds simple, right?
But we have so many wrongheaded ideas about each of them, like mistaking empathy for sympathy, and idiot compassion, and thinking of humility as a weakness, as submissiveness, the image of being prostrate before another person. I’m planning an upcoming post to tackle the fact that genuine humility is a sign of strength, because it is, and I’ve seen it, most especially in every TED speaker who gets up and talks about their failures.
I work through a lot of things in writing. Part of why I write is to understand, to unpack what I’m thinking. But I think this was essential to think out loud, because it is such a huge issue in how I relate to others at all.
I haven’t had many real friendships with people strong enough to practice the deep levels of empathy, compassion, and humility necessary for a cross-class relationship, for any relationship with someone less privileged than you. Because of that I don’t have a lot of experience with having the tough conversations about this. Most of what I learned about tough conversations was from all the passive-aggressive asshaberdashers and abusers I grew up with (and subsequently fell into friendships and communities with, since for most of my life I didn’t know there was anything better out there).
I have a lot of fear around these conversations. Justifiable, because a lot of people with privilege don’t like being reminded of it, particularly if they’re also oppressed in some other way. Which most of us are, unless you’re a rich white straight cisgendered male American. I get it. I lived with blinkers on for years and for a lot of that time would have been very uncomfortable and ashamed if someone in a wheelchair, a person of color, an LGBTQIA person brought up my privilege point-blank and started talking about the harsh realities they live with. Or I would have had pity, or sympathy, or idiot compassion, and maybe made stupid comparisons to my own privileged distress or stupid advice. And I did both these for years, and I know what it’s like to be in that sleepy fog of denial.
But it’s not compassionate to tiptoe around and let people sleep in their ignorance and habitual microaggressions. That’s not at all how social change happens. Yes, it’s annoying and painful to us people with unexamined power, all of us—who subsequently spread our pain around with a big privileged shovel when it comes because we’re used to being catered to and left to sleep.
The best thing any ally or friend can do is the first level of validation. Know how to shut up and listen. Don’t make it about you. Don’t force your discomfort with the issue to derail their issue. Get comfortable with discomfort.
Chances are, if I’m comfortable in this world, it’s because of some privilege that someone else doesn’t have that allowed me opportunities and power to make myself comfortable. If I’m comfortable, I’m most likely in denial or comfortably chemically numb. I think back with a critical, interested mind on the days when I was asleep, and what I felt like when I did the things that absolutely piss me off in potential friends these days. Mostly what I felt was insecurity and absolutely overwhelming fear, which had been going off like a siren so long I was deaf to it.
So I get it. I get where it’s coming from. I feel you. I’ve been there.
But I’m not going to let you sleep while you’re lying on me and others and causing us pain. It’s time to wake up, sweetie. You’re late for self-education.
I mean it. Five more minutes and I’m getting the ice cubes.
Addendum about envy: I read this after posting and it seemed relevant
I once knew a woman who suffered for years from excruciating, exquisite, unrelenting envy. She worked hard all day at her factory job, trying to make her life better, and then she hid out at night in her house. She couldn’t bear to behold what full lives people around her were living. She felt unconsolably lonely and utterly miserable. Over and over she described her friends’ happiness in great detail. She knew everything good that happened to them. Whenever word came of some new success or boon to any of her friends, she went into shock, another nail pounded into the chest of envious thoughts she carried with her at all times. Her friends had money, good families, fulfilling work, companionship, and great sex. Listening to her you got the impression that the entire world was blissfully happy, while she alone bore the burden of loneliness and poverty. […] Her envy mirrored her preoccupation with the lives of others and the neglect of her own.[…]
A person talking about envy is like a religious missionary trying to win converts. Behind the stories of envy is the message: Aren’t you as outraged as I am?[…]
…by reciting this list of plagues at every opportunity, she was rationalizing her state. These convincing arguments were part of her complex. They kept her envy oiled and well polished.
Ironically, this woman’s angry explanations for her misfortune distracted her from feeling the pain of her past. Symptoms are often obviously painful, but at the same time they may protect against a deeper pain associated with awareness and facing the fundamental realities of fate. It was as though her envy sucked all that pain into itself and in an odd way kept her from owning her past.[…]
If we avoid the compensatory move into support and positive thinking, we can learn instead to honor the symptom and let it guide us in close care of the soul. If in envy the person wishes life were better, then maybe it’s a good idea to feel that emptiness deeply. Wishes can be fluffy instruments of repression, turning attention to unrealistic and superficial possibilities as a defense against the void that is so painful. It was fairly clear that what this woman was lacking was the capacity to feel her own sense of desolation and emptiness. —Excerpts from Thomas Moore’s ‘Care of the Soul’
I don’t believe this invalidates my anger and desire for a better life for myself, nor the demands that classism and ableism be addressed when they shows up in my life.
But I do believe that the lady (me) doth protest with more venom than could be reasonably explained away by years of repression, silence, not standing up for myself, and petitioning for respect and being taken seriously and not getting it. And I really felt this passage deeply. I recognized how caustic my blog is to potential readers, how personal and angry, unleavened by self-awareness.
I think both can be true—that there’s validity to my feelings of unfairness, but my obsession with this persecution is flagging it as an area where my soul needs more care, an anger to block myself from feeling the despair of the child I was, the loss of the life I would lead with my husband when he died, the loss of my innocence as I began to open to awareness of what was done to me and my own limitations.
That child feels so alarmingly vulnerable, and was so alarmingly vulnerable, to all manner of violations. And I need my righteous anger to fight for and protect that child—but I also need to reclaim her despair, because as long as I don’t it has a lot of power over me and my relationship to my environment and every other human being. Whatever I bury grows, I know that.
I just hate digging up that stuff. It’s all rotten and wormy and stinks to Valhalla.
Little by little, though. Little by little.