Graceful Humility

In America, we are not very good at being poor.

We are quite good at not staying poor; that is one of the core concepts of our national mythos.  Steinbeck is reported to have said:

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

The attribution and exactness of the quote is disputed; but that it has been repeated often enough to be (possibly) misquoted is merely evidence in its support.

To be American—that is, to aim for the values that Americans hold dear, to not merely be “a good American” but good at being an American, to exemplify American-ness, is to seek to be wealthy.

Once we’re wealthy, to our credit, we do OK.  Americans are very generous, and even our most wealthy tend to overindulge in proletariat pleasures (houses and vacations) rather than make attempts at immortality through patronage.  “American art collector” is something of an oxymoron, or at least a New York thing.

We’re not perfect, and essays can and have been written on the havoc that can be wrought by our generosity and egalitarian aspirations, but this really is one of our strengths.  Progressive over-charity is bad; but it’s at least a virtue distorted rather than an uncomplicated evil like open, vicious pride of wealth.

So.  We’re good at getting rich, and we’re good at being rich.

Are we good at being poor?

I don’t think so, and I think this is both obvious when thought about, and highly troubling afterwards.

Consider the phrase: “I am but a simple man, sir, but honest and true.”  Is that an American utterance?  Doesn’t it sound like it belongs more to a medieval romance, or a German fairytale?

If you’re American and poor, virtue consists of honesty, hard work, thrift…in other words, of trying not to be poor.

Shouldn’t it be enough to simply be virtuous?

America is about a lot of things, but two big ones are money and God.  While we’re not so big on God anymore (though relative to most of Western Europe, we at least say the words), we’re definitely still about money!

What does our consolation for the poor look like?

First, we’re charitable.  Which is of course good.

Second, we do in fact try to help the poor escape poverty.  How to do this is a matter of much disagreement, but at least no one is making the argument that we shouldn’t try.

Third, we teach that there is honor in non-material things.  Oh, wait, we don’t.

Maybe we say the words.  But for American culture as a whole—including much of Christian culture, which by default will be American culture without correction—wealth and respect are tied.  I have trouble coming up with an exception.  Perhaps the Amish?

This is actually not that bad when everyone is rich.  A social pattern I’ve noticed in myself goes something like this:

Speaker 1:  I am awesome because of x, y, and z.

Speaker 2: Oh, hi, I’m not really that awesome.

Speaker 1: YES YOU ARE.  Do you do a?

Speaker 2: No.

Speaker 1: Do you do b?

Speaker 2: Well, yeah.

Speaker 1: B is awesome.  Therefore, you are awesome.  We are both awesome.


On the face of it, this is really quite an innocent interaction.  Speaker 1’s intentions are good.

The pattern fails, however, when there is nothing particularly noteworthy about Speaker 2.  Worse, should Speaker 1‘s fortunes take a dark turn, despair is not merely imminent, but logical.  Hold your head high by merit, drop it in shame by merit.

This is basically the American pattern.  It is, to our credit, responsible for a lot of material wealth.  But it is also why people are dying of opiate addiction in small towns and why the marriage age is rising even in chaste men and women.

Here’s how the conversation ought to go:

Speaker 1: Hi.

Speaker 2: Hi.  I’m not really that awesome.

Speaker 1: Who cares?  God will provide.  Come over for a barbecue.


The barbecue makes it still American

Regarding small towns and opioids:  does society have a model for the honorable poor?  I don’t think we do.  The RighteousⒸ thing to do is leave.

Regarding the marriage age: attraction lives and dies based on the man’s self-confidence.  Among the chaste, he certainly won’t be getting that from his sexual conquests.  What other traits has he been taught to respect in men?  So often he gets it from his ability as a provider.  Which, for young men, is going to be predictably…subpar.  And par is what matters, because how do you measure material wealth if not relative to others?  Thus the rich marry and poor don’t.

A useful exercise:  What does “successful poor” look like?


11 comments on “Graceful Humility

  1. elspeth says:

    Reblogged this on Things I Wish I'd Known Sooner and commented:
    Because these are thoughts worthy of consideration….

  2. elspeth says:

    About this:

    So often he gets it from his ability as a provider. Which, for young men, is going to be predictably…subpar. And par is what matters, because how do you measure material wealth if not relative to others? Thus the rich marry and poor don’t.

    The problem is that if we extol the virtue of a wife and mother with her energy, time and talents focused on home then her husband must necessarily make enough money to provide the necessities of life.

    This goes double with those for whom limiting numbers of children is viewed as inherently sinful. There are lots of suggestions offered as to how a family can manage this even on a meager income, but I have not seen it as a workable solution. Not if you want to raise this ever expanding brood in a relatively safe environment and somehow manage to have them educated up to standards that won’t have child protective services knocking down your door.

    Personally, I have no problem with a married couple holding off children for 5 years to save money, having mom work part time if needed, or accepting that they can realistically only feed, educate, and maintain the safety of three children, or four, or whatever.

    In other words, Christian marriage in America is being hindered and hampered by its own competing ideals and mutually exclusive values.

    A useful exercise: What does “successful poor” look like?

    It looks like a world where people are motivated to help and encourage one another with more than lip service and more importantly, where people are comfortable receiving help from their nearest and dearest without being ashamed of it. Ironically, it’s also the best way to rescue people from extreme poverty.

    But again, that slams hard against the American “virtue” of rugged individualism and pulling one’s <b.self up by the bootstraps.

    And so we look to the government to do this. It’s more anonymous, of course, but the ultimate price is pretty steep.

    • Sue M. says:

      You are absolutely right when you say that limiting the number of children a husband and wife choose to bring into this world is not inherently sinful. Just as you are when you delineate some of the methods that are prudent to postpone having children for a while to save money, having the mom work part-time, or accepting help from relatives.

      But, I’ve done volunteer work assisting people to obtain food assistance, expanded Medicaid, and home heating/cooling assistance, and more for people with low-paying jobs for over four years. Getting help from relatives or friends would be great…if these people knew anyone with the money to help them. Many already told me that Mom bought my car or my brother gives us money for groceries when he and his wife can (or something like that), but often that’s not enough. Making referrals to food pantries and churches and other non-profit that provide free clothing or emergency shelter helps, too, but will never fill the gap entirely.

      We need relatives, neighbors, and friends helping one another, non-profits (including churches, synagogues, mosques, temples), private sector initiatives, and yes, the public sector, working together.

  3. donalgraeme says:

    A lot of good, thought provoking insight here. I haven’t been considering a lot of this from this angle, so thanks for giving me a different perspective.

  4. donalgraeme says:

    The notion of a stay-at-home mom who wasn’t economically producing is a relatively recent development. In the past, mom did usually “produce” in an economic sense at home, even while raising that brood. The problem is that is so much harder these days. And of course the cost of living is even higher too. Especially raising children and housing. And that is no accident, either.

    • Elspeth says:

      The notion of a stay-at-home mom who wasn’t economically producing is a relatively recent development.

      The industrial age has rendered a lot of these opportunities obsolete. This isn’t to say that at-home mothers can’t contribute to the bottom line, but the range of options are very slim, and most of what is left are wholly incompatible with managing a large family.

      Coupling this with the higher cost of living places an even bigger burden on men; and that includes those who are perfectly happy living the life of a “simple man, sir, but honest and true”.

      • Sue M. says:

        Stay-at-home moms can still contribute to the bottom line…as long as they possess marketable skills and have a good work record before they become stay-at-home moms. A bookkeeper or accountant can work from home and take on as many or as few clients as she wants. Writers or editors can take on free-lance assignments. An RN, LPN, or many other women with experience in medical billing or coding can develop a business auditing hospital or complex medical bills for clients (they contain more errors than you might think). An administrative or executive assistant can become a virtual executive assistant for a single client. Experienced web developers and programmer/analysts should be able to get free-lance work. A teacher can become a private tutor and have the students come toher home. Or check into working from a couple of days a week before you have children if your job allows it. Then when you get pregnant, your manager/supervisor might be open to your working part-time from home. The list is endless for someone willing to think outside the box

        • Elspeth says:

          Yes Sue. There are options. When our older children were in school all day, I had a couple of ways to make extra money. However, when are younger children came, and we decided to homeschool, it was just too overwhelming for me to split my energy and so I was directed by my husband to dedicate my time and energy to the home and education about children.

          • Elspeth says:

            Couple of typos courtesy of voice to text. But yes, when there is time there are ways for SAHMs to make money. I was projecting my experience onto other families. Erroneously.

  5. […] Seriouslypleasedropit is on a quest to find Graceful Humility. […]

  6. Micah says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with a person wanting to lift themselves out of poverty. If the Bible tells us to help the poor, I don’t see any problem in the poor wanting to help themselves; especially if a poor family struggles to take care of its children.

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