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Finding joy when you're in poverty

I had the pleasure recently of speaking at my church about poverty and my experience of it. At the end, one lady asked a question about giving money to people in poverty who might then spend it frivolously. To be fair, I’m not entirely sure that was her question. I wasn’t quite sure what her question was, but that seemed to be part of what she was asking, and it’s an interesting question that I think is helpful to respond to.

What I said to her was that, if you give someone money and you think they spent it frivolously, then you didn’t give them enough money. You didn’t give them enough money to make a meaningful difference in their life. To clear them of debt; to secure a decent home; to purchase access to a training course that will give them access to a job that will take them out of poverty forever. All you did was give them enough to make today and tomorrow a little bit more bearable – and then complained that they made their life a bit more bearable. If you want people to make life-changing decisions with the money you give them, then you need to give them life-changing amounts of money. And meet all the other costs that crop up in the interim.

Living as I do on a low income and with chronic illness, there is little enough in my life that I can enjoy. I live with constant pain, and that is depressing. I live with constant fatigue, and that is exhausting. I live alone, and that’s lonely. I eat nice food, and the sugar makes my pain worse.

I visit my sister, and I enjoy the time with her and her young children, but it’s exhausting and increasingly I am dreading it because of how hard I find it. I look after a dog for a day while his owners are at work, and I love his company and taking him out for a walk, but he demands too much from me and it makes me more ill. It’s a sunny day so I spend some time gardening, and my heart-rate soars and I feel weak and tremulous and dizzy, but I want to be outside participating in nature and making my home beautiful.

It’s a grey day, and the lowness of the clouds contributes to the lowness of my mood. It’s November and my house is at 18oC; I’m wearing lots of layers, but my hands and feet and head are still cold. I feel a tremulousness in my core body that says that nothing short of raising the temperature in my house will warm me up – but that costs money, and I’m conscious of my impact on the environment too. I eat some hot food, and my autonomic system dysfunctions, so parts of me are too hot and hurting because of that whilst others are too cold and hurting because of that.

Everything I do comes with a downside. I do nothing, and I’m bored and lonely and miserable. I do something, and it wears me out and I feel the inflammation in my body and the ache in my bones and my lymph glands swelling and the pain raging under my skin.

I look into government policy and the available data around their bad plans, and it’s distressing because they’re yet again doing the opposite of their very own research and data, and it’s my community that is going to be hurt because of it, and it’s all so frustratingly pointless because the right thing is staring them in the face and still they won’t do it, so what is the point of me and others pointing it out to them? Yet if there’s anything I’m called to do, it’s this. And yet if there’s one thing that would improve my health and wellbeing, it’s completely ignoring the government and all its policy – if only I didn’t actually want to be a human and interact with my neighbours, and hear from them how government policy is harming them, and want to do something to help them if not myself.

There’s little enough unalloyed pleasure in my life. I can’t – shouldn’t – eat added sugars, because it makes my pain worse. I almost certainly shouldn’t eat white processed carbs, like white pasta and white bread and white rice, because that probably makes my pain worse too. I probably shouldn’t eat reheated foods, because they can be harder to digest, and I have enough digestive trouble as it is. But I can’t afford to pay someone to come in twice a day to cook from fresh ingredients, and the very idea of only cooking one portion at a time instead of four or five fills me with horror at the waste of electricity which neither I nor the climate can afford. But sometimes, once or twice a day, I actually want to eat something that I look forward to eating. That I enjoy eating. That I look back on eating with pleasure.

So forgive me if, when I eat, I want to enjoy it. Forgive me if, when the food club yet again hands me food that is either food that is disappointingly past its enjoyable state or is food I don’t like even when it is at its best. Forgive me if I’m saddened by having to eat yellowed broccoli; or stale bread; or vinegary fruit salad; or bruised pears; or mushy apples; or tough beans because that – plus food I don’t like – is what fills the bags of foodbanks and food clubs. Forgive me if, when I do eat something with added sugar, I want it to be something that I personally find is worth the extra pain it brings, not something that the middle class rejected from their supermarkets.

Many of us people in poverty have little to enjoy. We can’t just drop in to the local Starbucks/Costa/Caffé Nero on the way to work for a nice coffee because it tastes good and we enjoy it. We can’t just go to the local delicatessen for lunch as a treat or stop by the patisserie on the way home. We can’t do that once a day; once a week; once a month. We feel bad doing it once a year. We buy the cheap foods because that’s what we can afford but we know that the less-processed beans and the freshly-baked bread and the just-ripe fruit tastes better and is better, but we can’t afford it. We buy the ‘essentials’ range and we get given the bruised, over-ripe, mushy fruit and veg to eat that you don’t want, and the highlight of our day is the pleasure of a just-ripe banana and a single piece of chocolate.

That’s not much, when you’re cold and tired and in pain. When you’re stressed over how to manage your finances, and how to juggle the food-club food in your fridge to make the best use of the things that went off yesterday and go off today and are going off in the next two days. There’s not much time, and not much that works well together, and nothing that makes a meal you look forward to without going out and buying other ingredients that you can’t afford. So you eat what you have, and you try to make yourself wait all day for that single pleasure – the highlight of your day – which is one single piece of chocolate.

Just pray it isn’t Yorkie.

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