Changing our Vernacular, Part 1

I’m going to warn you from the beginning – this might be an unpopular little blog series.

It might make you uncomfortable. It might make you embarrassed. I hope, if nothing else, that it at least makes you think. I hope it gives you pause, I hope it makes you stop before you speak, before you utter words that may not be entirely true.

Tonight, the particular words I’m talking about – the words I used to say so flippantly, without a second thought – “I’m so poor.”

When you work in nursing, “overtime” tends to be a buzzword around the units. It usually falls into one of two categories – “make sure you’re not in overtime,” or “please work overtime; we’re drowning.” And in both cases, I hear so many nurses either complain because they aren’t getting it – “I’m just so poor” – or explain away the three sixteen hour shifts they’ve just worked – “I’m so poor right now, I need the extra money.”

Some nurses are truly in this boat. Some nurses are single moms who are trying desperately to make ends meet, and not quite making it. Some nurses are dudes who are trying to support an entire family on a new-grad nurse’s salary (still WAY better than minimum wage, by the way). Some nurses work flexi hours, and only get paid when there are hours to work. But so many of us aren’t in that boat, and we are so woefully unaware of our financial privilege.

It’s not just nurses, either. It’s our culture. We need more, more, more, and when we get more, it never seems to be enough. I read an interesting article on facebook last month, and had a conversation about it with a friend – the article was citing reasons why the middle class can’t get ahead. Apparently overtime hours are barred for most careers (I found out that nursing doesn’t count in this weird legal thing), but my question was, “Why does the middle class need to get ahead? Why do we need to have more than we require to pay our bills and feed our families?”

My friend suggested that was just what rich people want us to think. I suggested that’s actually more what Jesus wants us to think.

But what society wants us to think is that what we have is never enough.

I’m reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp right now – it was a gift from my mother several years ago, and I’ve only recently come to a place where I feel like I’m really, really ready to hear what it says. What it says is a lot about contentment.

The “I’m so poor” vernacular doesn’t reflect much contentment.

“I’m poor,” we say as we play on our expensive computers, decorate our pretty houses with pretty things, carry our designer bags, complain about having nothing to wear as we stare at closets bursting at the seams, and go to our Alabama football games (or Auburn, or what have you) for which we have season tickets. “I’m poor,” we complain as we write a check for four new tires at once, as we pick up another new pair of shoes for the kids because they’re forever growing out of them, as we replace the cell phone we dropped, shattering the screen. “I’m poor,” we say as we pay our mortgage without a second thought, and at the same time, fork over money for monthly medications and pay that pesky parking fine and shell out $200 a week to feed a family of four or five.

And the more I think about it, the more I hear it and see it, the more I think – how insulting. For the people in this world working two jobs, still unable to cover rent and food both, so they have to choose. For people whose employers won’t give them enough hours to be eligible for benefits. For those people who are one small crisis away from losing their home. For people who are stuck between a rock and a hard place, because how do you choose between working and staying at home when childcare for your kids costs more than it’s worth to pay? (Seriously, though. Childcare is INSANELY expensive. INSANE. Like, over $100/week per child or more than that if you want a decent daycare center, and minimum wage, before taxes, pays about $290 a week IF you’re fortunate enough to get full-time hours, so how, precisely, does that work out for anybody?)

There’s a hefty difference between being poor and wanting more money.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making money or with having nice things. I recently bought a really lovely winter coat, just because I could. I’m also not saying that managing money is easy, regardless of how much we have, or that things are cheap. I’m not trying to demonize people who have season football tickets, or who live in big houses.

But I do take issue with people who obviously aren’t poor claiming that they are.

I take issue with it because it minimizes the struggle of people who don’t have enough.

I have never been poor. I don’t know firsthand what it feels like to worry over bills, knowing the money you have just isn’t going to stretch far enough. I’ve never known the horror of having insufficient funds when you go to pay for your groceries. (Have I been stupid and irresponsible and overdrafted? Yeah. In college. Not the same thing, particularly when you have parents who get mad about it, but bail you out anyway.) I’ve never come close to having to face the nightmare of not having a place to live. But I do know people who have been there, done that, who are there and experiencing it right now. How offensive it must be to them, hearing us go on about all the things they do not have, and complaining about how it isn’t enough.

It isn’t just our words, though. It’s the very fiber of our culture. “Enough” is not a concept we embrace very easily, and true contentment is rare. I think we, particularly those of us who believe in and follow Jesus, need to practice that contentment a little more diligently. Please don’t misunderstand me – I don’t think that anyone should be content and satisfied with not being able to pay for housing, or for food, or for basic living necessities. There are other ways to feel contentment in a difficult financial situation, but I don’t wrong people for wanting to be stable.

But what happens after we reach that stability? I think part of the problem is that “stable” is kind of hard to define, just like “poor” is hard to define. But that’s just a tiny part of the problem – the heft of the iceberg is the fact that our capitalistic society screams more, more, more until even $100K a year isn’t enough. My pastor once preached a sermon on this very topic – even John Wesley got it a little off, he theorized. Instead of “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” he suggested that we live by a more moderate mentality. “Earn enough, save enough, give enough.” Obviously that looks different to different people, but I think the heart of the message is to check our greed. To appreciate that which we have, to give of the extra that we gain. To recognize the extra when we have it.

Instead of all the ways we feel poor, all the reasons society tells us we need more, maybe we should focus on the richness in our lives.

Returning to Ann Voskamp, there’s a great quote in her book where she talks about her journey toward a mindset of gratitude. “…The habit of discontentment can only be driven out by hammering in one iron sharper,” she says. “The sleek pin of gratitude. I hammer.”

That hammering, for her, came in the practice of listing, one by one, a thousand things she’s thankful for, one thousand gifts from God. That’s quite a task, but I don’t think we even have to get to a thousand before our thought process changes.

Maybe if we begin to practice more hammering at ourselves and yearn less for things we don’t have, if we remind ourselves of all the ways we’re rich instead of all the reasons we’re poor, we’ll recognize all the extra we actually have. We’ll be thankful for it, we’ll give of it.

Vernacular can only change with attitude, with a change in heart. Change is hard. Change doesn’t come suddenly, but with time and patience and intention.

That’s my challenge. Be intentional. Seek change. Seek love. Seek contentment. Once you have that, the rest will follow.