Category Archives: Hard Things

Hard Things: Recession Generation

In which I am hopeful and idealistic. It’s chronic.

I’m young and unemployed. Technically I’m still in school, but I graduate in May, so I’m looking hard for how to pay the bills afterward. I would say that this situation makes me acutely aware of this terrible economy, but the truth is that we’re all acutely aware of it. There is simply no way to avoid awareness, whether it’s your own business taking a downturn, hearing tales from friends that have been hit hard, struggling to put together a non-profit budget when donations are down but need is up, or, like so many of us, paging endlessly through job postings hoping something looks promising.

I don’t mean to be so depressing here. I’m hopeful that my job prospects will turn up any day now. My point is that this downturn pervades our sensibilities these days, and, if we pay attention, it can’t help but change our perspective.

I recently read this article on the things people are doing to cope with the recession. It reminded me of nothing so much as the stories people tell about those who lived through the Great Depression saving bits of string, tinfoil and disposable cutlery to use again. Waste not, want not.

I think this Recession with a capital R will likewise stick with us. The economy goes up and down a lot, but it certainly seems like this downturn has had a greater impact than, say, the tech bubble bursting. When that happened, people lost some stock value (which hurt, for sure), but this time it’s our homes and our jobs that are at risk. That feels more personal, and the emotional impact of the Great Recession may well be something that lasts, that shapes us into as distinctive a generation as the octogenarians still saving bits of string to this day.

It’s impossible to say at this point just how we’ll be changed, but I have a guess. Really it’s more like a hope.

My guess is that we will remember how fleeting our financial security is. This will likely make us save more, spend less, and waste less. These are all great, practical things. But I wonder if the change won’t be broader. If we feel deep down that the bottom could drop out at any point, will we be more sympathetic to people going through hard times? Will we finally turn our backs on the anti-poor rhetoric of the 80’s and 90’s and see people with fewer resources as really not so different?

I’ve spent a lot of my time working with people who come from very different backgrounds than I do, both through working in a direct service non-profit jobs and through making sure my internships in law school were with organizations designed around the needs of the unrepresented. This experience has planted in me a deep and abiding belief that people have more in common than we usually admit. That people who can’t afford what other people can afford and have to look elsewhere for support are just like everyone else. They are everyone else. They just caught a bad break. They probably caught several.

And it’s my fervent hope that this perspective is spreading. That catching a glimpse of our own economic mortality will mean that looking out for our own personal advancement is diminishing and supporting policies that favor the common good is growing.

Someday, times will be better. Someday, this will be a story we tell to people who weren’t there. What will we say?

I’m hopeful that we’ll say that this was the time we learned that we’re not so different from each other after all. Many people who grew up middle class suddenly see that they too could have to give up going to the movies or owning a car. Our economic security is never more than an illusion, but it’s so easy to forget that when times are good. When times are bad, the path to the bottom becomes much clearer, and it’s scary. But if we let it, it can also make us see that those who need help are just like us.

We’re all in this together after all, or we should be. Maybe a better way to put it is that we CAN all be in this together, if we choose. If it becomes abundantly clear to me that my financial security could evaporate at any moment, maybe I won’t look down on your need to go on food stamps, or the hard choices you had to make to support your family. Maybe I’ll give you the extra dollar I have at the moment. Maybe I’ll let my gratitude for being able to put food on the table overflow into helping you put food on your table.

If I know it could happen to me, I’ll be more inclined to help you. As part of the Recession Generation, I hope that is the lasting legacy these trying times leave on us.


Hard Things: Grocery Store

Going to the grocery store should not, by rights, be a hard thing. In fact, for people with true HARD THINGS to deal with, I imagine that going to the grocery store is laughably easy. By “hard things” here I mean dilemmas that I’m still searching for a good way to deal with. They are, most definitely, first world problems.

Nevertheless, the condition of being an American at the beginning of the 21st century is the condition of having too many choices.

Nowhere is this more apparent to me than at the grocery store. I love picking out what food to make, and I love the cooking of delicious food, but I do not love buying groceries, because there are just too many choices. The more I learn about the American food industry, the more treacherous I feel the trip to the grocery store becomes.

It always happens the same way. I come to the grocery store, happily purchase some bread and some pasta, and then, begrudgingly, look at the last thing on my list.

Eggs. It’s always eggs.

More times than I can count, I have found myself agonizing in front of the display of eggs, scrutinizing every egg carton, thinking “Free range?” “Cage-free?” “Organic?” “Natural?” I mull each egg carton, and their great disparity in price and think, “Should I just give up and buy the cheapest ones? They’re just eggs. Does the buying of eggs really have to trigger this existential crisis every time?” And then, inevitably, I always hear Leo McGarry’s voice in my head saying, “Think of the chickens.” And then I remember all the horrible things I’ve heard about chickens with their beaks cut off, crammed so close together that they can’t spread their wings, and I buy whichever eggs sound the least like that might have happened to the chickens that laid them.

This happens every. single. time.

I’ve come to expect it, and now I just walk up, grab the $4 eggs and move on. I have stopped purchasing meat at the grocery store (I still eat meat sometimes but very rarely buy it to make for myself) just because I don’t want to have this internal conflict several times per grocery visit.¬† It’s uncomfortable.

I don’t like thinking that my purchasing decisions have some larger global consequences. I don’t like the guilt that comes from buying bananas if they cause people to live in abject poverty. Usually, I just want some food, I just want to be able to make whatever I have planned to make, and I don’t want to have to think that I might be causing someone harm because of the decisions I make. I also hate thinking about how little information I really have, about what I’m purchasing, and how, in the end, I’m doing what I can and hoping for the best.

But I think, ultimately, my discomfort in front of the egg display in the grocery store is a good thing.

Because, unfortunately, there is no escaping this reality. The purchasing decisions we make do affect how companies behave, and there’s not a thing we can do about it. If demand for conventionally grown fruit evaporated, organic¬† (whatever that means) would proliferate more widely. Capitalism, baby. What we buy affects whether chickens are treated cruelly, how much the environment is polluted, and what fruits, exactly, those abroad can expect for their labors. We’re all, alas, in this together.

Like I said, first world problems. But I live in condition of having more resources than almost everyone else in the world, so the least I can do is use them wisely. I can vote with my dollars. I can cherish that awkward supermarket interaction between me and the eggs, and maybe I can grown to be more thoughtful every day.

That’s a good prayer. Let’s hope for that, for each of us.


Hard Things: Handouts

Here’s how it happened for me. I would be walking down the street and see someone asking passersby for money, and a flood of possibilities as to my response would crash around in my head.

Do I hand over a dollar and feel good about it? Do I toss them my change and worry that it will be ill spent? Do I rationalize keeping my wallet shut by thinking that I don’t want to make it profitable to sit on a sidewalk all day? Do I keep walking and pretend I didn’t hear or see them? Do I answer that I don’t have any change to spare at the moment? Does it matter whether I do or not? Do I stop and buy them lunch instead? Do I look them in the eye?

Is there any possible way to get to the other side of this intersection and feel good about what I chose? Why is this person doing this to me? I’m just walking to work, I don’t want to have to think about all these things right now. I’m running late and I don’t want to have to decide. Why do I have to?

At various times, I acted on every one of these responses and probably more. It’s one of the most persistent moral dilemmas for city dwellers who have some resources. How should I react to people on the street asking for money? On one level, the answer seems easy. What is a dollar to me, really? I think I can make it if I lighten my wallet by that much, and it might make the difference for whether this person eats or not. I think I should probably hand over this dollar. And I’ll probably feel guilty if I don’t.

But it’s never that simple, is it?

We all know that many people on the street struggle with addiction, and it’s so easy to see that dollar going for booze or drugs rather than food or shelter or bus fare. And that can bother us enough to hold back and not give it away after all. Or make us feel guilty if we do give some change. Oh no, I’m just feeding their habit. I’m not really helping after all.

Of course, we also think, panhandling is dangerous and keeps people from doing other things, so there’s no reason to encourage it. Dropping a quarter in someone’s cup could mean they spend another day out in the elements, and no one really wants that. This has made me feel guilty for giving too.

To tell you the truth, I used to feel more than guilty. I used to feel heartbroken by the fact that there are people in wealthy, developed countries who have to beg on the streets. I would walk down the street devastated by the state of our society and of us as individuals that we would allow this to happen. More often than not, I wouldn’t give to panhandlers, because all I could think in my heartbroken state is that it wouldn’t make a difference. Giving a dollar or not wouldn’t help at all, because what was wrong was so much bigger and deeper and longer-lasting than my little choice of what to do with my change. And it made me feel awful, just awful a whole lot of the time. So I took the only logical step. I started working in homeless services. And now I walk down the street and don’t feel terrible any more.

So there you are, friends: the answer to that daily dilemma that’s been tugging at your heart strings is to quit your job and spend a year serving breakfast on the streets.

No, that’s probably not the answer. For one thing, there aren’t enough non-profit jobs for everyone. Practically it just wouldn’t work. And truly, I do not know how you are supposed to spend your life. I know I I’m profoundly grateful for that year serving breakfast. It formed me in important ways and affirmed a lot of my suspicions about how I should spend my life. But it’s probably not what everyone needs to do.

What I really think is that interactions with people who have different life situations from ours is profoundly important. As uncomfortable as it is, it makes us recognize that the world is bigger than our daily to-do list, and, if we’re lucky, makes us think about how we’re living and how we can live better in a world that contains both people like us and people not like us. Here’s something to think about – it’s not pleasant for anyone to sit on a street corner and ask for money. I’ve heard that this act of swallowing your pride to beg from strangers is incredibly painful, and I know that there are some people who could definitely use your spare change who will never ask for it because of that. If we recognize that, when someone asks you for money, it can be a moment to see each others’ humanity instead of just feeling bad.

There are no easy answers for whether you should give the guy on the corner your change or not. If it makes you feel bad that he’s even asking, it’s because it’s a terrible thing to live in a place where not everyone has a roof over their head, and some people have so little and others have so much. It’s not the way things should be. We should take better care of each other, but we haven’t figured out how yet. That situation should make us feel bad, but it shouldn’t make us feel helpless or despairing. If nothing else, we can wish the guy on the corner good morning, donate to local service organizations, volunteer, cook for each other, and yes, maybe once in a while give someone a dollar to get on the bus. Even if you’d rather they didn’t ask, remember they’d rather not be asking too. On good days now, when I get asked for money, whether I give or not, I think, that’s right, we’re all in this together, I hope you stay safe, and I’ll remember to think about what I can do. Be well, be warm.

Here’s wishing you a safe and warm February evening.