By Lauren Ouellette-Bruchez
I have often spoken with my grandfather about his life during the 50’s and 60’s. He has so many stories from his time working at the “old A&P”. Grandpa told me about what products he used to sell and of the customers he remembered over the years and I can tell he looks back upon it fondly. I’m sure he had bad days and bad customers but by and large he felt respected and was genuinely making people’s lives better and easier. Eventually he decided to return to school to become a funeral director. He got his degree in something he truly cared about and wanted to do and I have great respect for his decision to not only go to college when the time was right for him but also to return to his education later in his life.
Fast forward to 2011. My older sister was working at a department store. I happened to be at the mall that day and wanted to stop by to say a quick hello. She was working in the ladies handbag department at the time. A woman brought her items to my sister’s counter to check out. She happened to have a department specific coupon with her for something in the men’s department. Very kindly my older sister apologized and explained that the coupon could not be used at her register but would have to be taken to the men’s department to be processed. The customer proceeded to tell my sister how useless she felt she was because she didn’t have managerial clearance to ring-up the coupon.
I have never been so tempted to ram a purse down someone’s throat so badly in all of my life, but my sister needed the job and I didn’t want to endanger her employment. Not only was this person so terribly disrespectful but she thought nothing of humiliating my sister in front of other customers. In that moment she didn’t see my sister as a person. She saw only a nameless, faceless store employee who was incapable of giving her exactly what she wanted when she wanted it. She saw someone “lesser”.
It used to be that your local butcher was someone you knew by name. This was a person you trusted to prepare the food you’d be bringing home to your family. The guy who drove the bus was also not nameless. He was someone you saw every day. You trusted him to get you to work on time and safely. People once understood that service people working in their neighborhoods were in fact their neighbors and people who didn’t have to be doctors and lawyers to be regarded with decency and kindness.
This is not to say that I want the good old days to come back. There was much to be desired back in our grandparents’ time. They were fighting some of the hardest battles for equality for African-Americans and women among other struggles. While I don’t put this era on a pedestal, there are some things they really did right and I think it’s important to acknowledge that especially considering our current state of affairs.
So what is the current state of affairs? Let’s start from the moment most of us begin establishing credit with our first student loans. Some students are capable of receiving grants, scholarships and financial aid while most people have to take out loans to afford higher education even just to supplement their awards. If someone doesn’t have the best scholastic record, loans are pretty much all that is available. Last December CNN reported that the average student will leave a four year program with $29,000 in debt. That number does not include interest.
What happens from here is largely dependent upon what major one chooses. Each degree has a different requirement. Some are largely useless without an advanced degree to go with it. Others are extremely costly with little chance of placement in a chosen field due to over-saturation. Some fields require that students work unpaid internships for a certain period of time before they can actually pursue a paid position in their field. These are just some of the struggles faced by those with degrees.
If you don’t have a degree you have an entirely different set of issues. It is in fact more difficult to find a job and those jobs tend to pay less and come with fewer chances of decent benefits with less upward mobility. But you don’t have the student loan debt. Chances are you just have different debt. Why does this matter and what does this have to do with how we treat people?
It matters because we are all in the same boat.
For example, there has been much discussion and debate about fast food workers striking for a living wage. One evening I found myself in a debate with a friend over this subject. It is my opinion that if someone works full time at any job and performs their duties properly that they should earn a living wage. I believe that there is no reason that a hardworking person should be unable to have decent clothes, a decent home and food and even be able to save a bit of money without having to apply for government assistance.
My friend vehemently disagreed with me expressing his annoyance that even he does not earn a living wage working at a warehouse packing pallets and loading trucks. It was his opinion that because he was not earning what he felt he should that someone working in what he perceived to be a lesser field should not either. What many of us don’t seem to realize is that this mentality of false status is deliberately manufactured to set us against one another instead of working together.
I have watched people lose their jobs to outsourcing after years of dedicated service to a company. Those same people have searched diligently for work while collecting unemployment. Without it they would lose their homes and starve. With so many people out of work, they may remain unemployed for months or even years depending upon numerous factors, any of which are outside their realm of control. They are then told that they are lazy, not trying hard enough and that they are a drain on society.
Eventually unemployment runs out and many people are forced to apply for any job they can find. They fill out applications to be cashiers at the gas station, managers at a fast food restaurant or cab drivers. Often they are turned away for being over-qualified. It’s almost worse when they are actually hired because those same people who would accuse them of leeching for having been on unemployment for so long will be the first to tell them to get a real job and stop complaining. Chances are those same people are not much more financially stable or much more gainfully employed.
What of people who don’t work in an entry-level service position because it was a last resort, but because it was the best option for them? Why are they perceived as lesser for doing what is within their means to do?
As Pagans we believe in the power of myths. They are our stories. They tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going in ways that we remember. Myths inspire us to greatness and can show us paths where we may not have otherwise seen them. But myths can also be terribly misleading and sadly effective.
The myth of worthiness as it has been presented to us, is terribly damaging.
If you watch FOX News (which I hope you don’t) you will hear the lunacy of any one of their hosts spouting poison about who deserves poverty as a result of some arbitrary perception of their laziness or wrong-doing. You hear the same stories from politicians and other affluent people. It’s a very old trick. If you find yourself in a position of power but you’re scared that you’re also the minority, how better to tip the scales in your favor than to encourage the disempowered majority to further disempower themselves with divisiveness?
What makes someone deserving? Is it their work ethic and if so, what aspect of that work ethic? Does higher intelligence or education make someone worthy? White? Male? Married? Christian? Does being a parent help? So many of the traits required to be “deserving” are the factors which would also make a person fear for themselves and what they have. When a person is disempowered, hurting and scared and someone powerful tells them that they’re worthy and someone else is not, it provides them with a focus for their anger and fear, even if it has been misdirected.
It’s also important to realize that those who have accepted this mentality aren’t stupid. They’re not inherently “bad”. They’re looking for the reason why unfortunate and frightening things are happening to them and their loved ones. It is much easier to accept that those who are responsible for their misfortune are those they could stand toe-to-toe with as opposed to the rich, powerful and power-hungry. Far too often we equate “good” and “deserving” with financial and social success, but we don’t live in a dualistic world. The “good” don’t always prevail. The “bad” don’t always suffer.
To be clear, this is not my battle cry of “be nice”! While I do believe in the power of kindness, I believe in what is effective far more. In this case the most effective tools are compassion and setting aside one’s ego. Know that we are all struggling. Know that if you are having a hard time financially, chances are that your problems have little or nothing to do with a McDonald’s employee who had to apply for food stamps or happens to be fighting for better pay and far more to do with bad economic and job policies and a whole lot of corruption on the part of powerful people.
Set aside your desires for status recognition. Research the motivations of those who would present themselves as leaders and be wary of anything that feeds your ire before it appeals to logic. Most importantly, don’t give power to stories which were created to take your power from you with your permission. Find your power in no longer accepting that having less makes you or anyone, less. Find your power in community.