Now 23, I’ve lived the charmed life and for that I thank my lucky stars every single day. I’m one of those people who spreads positivity and zest for life...from my shiny, untarnished perspective. This I recognize. For the past couple years, though, my academic life has been immersed in a subject that flipped me on my head. And for that I will be eternally grateful.
For my Masters thesis I conducted focus groups with low-income people and gathered a wealth of information on the barriers they face in having enough food from day to day. But what does that mean? I used a small town food bank and Salvation Army branch to recruit people who have trouble making ends meet from month to month. A few brave and resilient souls agreed to meet with me to share their stories of struggle, humiliation, and survival. In a country like Canada it’s so easy to think this doesn’t exist. It’s easy to think that we all live our kushy middle class lifestyles and everything is great.
The research process has taken quite an emotional toll, I’ll admit. I find myself in constant confrontation with socialized norms and having to check myself over and over again: Why as a society do we take one instance of someone who abuses the social welfare system and generalize it to everybody else? The people I consulted spoke only of wanting to be honest, of wanting to help others, of wanting to be healthy, and wanting to be happy. These are not luxuries. Basic humanity doesn’t teach us to trample everybody else while we find our way. When did this stuff happen? When did we decide it was easier to turn a blind eye to people who were suffering and came by it honestly? Why is it so easy for everyday Canadians to get stuck in the rut of social welfare and face an impossible battle to claw their way out?
As a working girl I understand the feeling of seeing half of your paycheque taken away. I get the feeling of waking up in the morning and wishing you could stay in bed but knowing your life depends on that daily grind so getting up anyway. I get the feelings of anger when you drive through your small town and see the “porch dwellers” sitting on the front step dragging on cigarettes, waiting to collect a cheque that comes from your hard earned tax dollars. I don’t think for one minute those are unjustified emotions. I think this is why my education has been so emotionally taxing on me - the constant pull of understanding both sides of the coin. Which is why I share this with everyone today.
We all love a good heart wrenching story as it shares its way around social media. We can all see the great in giving a homeless man a haircut or a hot meal or paying for the person’s coffee in the line behind us. But what is it that makes us so adamant that certain people are and certain people aren’t deserving of the same quality of life? Or atleast an equal shot at it? And that might just be the key.
Our grandparents came here with nothing and worked their way to the top, you hear that over and over again. But what was different at that time was a sense of community which is largely lost today. At that time people came together, be it through the church or otherwise, to help one another. A new family immigrated from the Netherlands? Someone offered them a job on their farm, someone stepped up to teach them English, someone was always around the corner if they were short a cup of sugar or needed a dime to mail a letter. In today’s world we have no idea who our neighbour is, we lock ourselves inside our air conditioned, technology equipped homes to entertain ourselves in isolation. We sit behind screens and feel a false sense of social cohesion.
But what if tomorrow comes and you lose your job, you get diagnosed with a chronic and debilitating disease, your partner leaves you, or your house burns down? Life is fragile. What if you find yourself on the other side of the fence, because the majority of the people living in poverty today will tell you, it can happen with the flick of a switch. They had “normal” lives before they found themselves using the food bank or going without. Have a little faith in people and know that people don’t want to be lazy. People are inherently good. But more importantly, know how lucky you are each and every morning to wake up with a purpose and the health, ability, and opportunity to go out and earn a proud living.
Just something to think about as we ignore the homeless man, sitting cross legged on the street. What was his life before he wound up there asking you for spare change? Did he simply make poor choices (as we’ve been taught to assume and can sometimes be true) or did he face incredible challenges in his childhood? Maybe he served our country and has now returned with unbearable mental health issues and a lack of support? The problems are so much deeper than the grips of a drug addiction. We are all given a different shot at this game of life - all equipped with different social supports, coping mechanisms, and emotional capacities.
Though I cursed the graduate student life more often than not - putting my own privilege on display - I will forever be grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from people who were at their most vulnerable. I truly learned the value of a dollar, what it can represent, the value of food so many of us take for granted, and the value of life. It gave me perspective that I will forever carry with me. Compassion. Perspective. Appreciation. And most of all 20-something drive - to spread a message and spark conversation...To ameliorate the lives of not just struggling Canadians but ultimately, all of us.