I don’t like going to the pediatrician’s office. Ours is in a seedy part of the city, but close to where I work and fairly close to my kids’ school, and there’s not a branch near our house in the suburbs. My aunt works as a PA for the company, and has told me that most of their patients are on TennCare, the government insurance program, so I know that the other patients in the waiting room are mostly lower income families. Every time we go, I sense the eyes on my children’s private school uniforms. I always want to give an excuse for my perceived wealth. “My husband works at their school, so we get a tuition discount!” I want to explain. But even that wouldn’t be enough. Because it would still tell them that we are educated, and that we have enough extra money to send two kids to private school, even at 50% off. Because the other parents can see my white, middle class working mom clothes, my slacks and heels and blouse. They can see my monogrammed bag and my highlighted hair.
I observe the other people in the waiting room sometimes. I listen to one mother talk on the phone about what bills she has to pay while her toddler explores the room. I see a middle grades Latino boy translate some items on the forms for his mother. I watch a young, heavily tattooed mom actually smack her son on the face when he squirms in his seat. I turn my head away and hope that they’ll call us back soon.
I am aware of my own judgmental spirit, even though I know that poverty is often generational and difficult to break out of, even though as a teacher I’ve read research on kids who come from poverty and how their brains are affected by their environment, even though I’ve taught dozens of kids from poverty. America has its own unspoken caste system, and I’m a part of it. I forget how privileged I am sometimes.
Still, part of me wants to say, But being middle class is hard, too! I want to admit that my son only has one pair of shoes that fits right now. That I carry my calculator through the grocery with me, and since we do a cash budget, I sometimes have to put items back when I know I’ll go over my limit. That some of my clothes came from Goodwill. That last year we had to replace both the water heater and the air conditioner, and it depleted our savings and then some.
But it’s not really enough, because I am still different. I still was raised by parents who never treated college as a choice: I was going. I have degrees, I have a career, I have a nice house. I get upset if my internet is down or if my garbage disposal breaks. My children have three good meals a day, and snacks in between, and a warm house in the winter, and a cool house in the summer, and more than one electronic device. That’s more than a lot of kids in this city have.
I tend to feel guilty, I do. Why should I have so much when other people have less? What is the answer? Is it charity? Is it giving to the needy? While a good thing to do, I wonder if it can sometimes feel demeaning to the recipients. I think there are a lot of people in the world who want to be seen. Not just seen for what they need, but seen for who they are. So what, then? Do I downsize, simplify, and purposely live among the poor? How do I navigate this unspoken caste system in ways that will affirm the humanity of others?
Mother Maria of Paris is an Eastern Orthodox nun and saint who rejected monastery monasticism and developed a “monasticism in the world.” Though an educated writer and speaker, Mother Maria lived a life among the poor and needy, running several homes, dining rooms, and schools for Russian expats in Paris. She physically and spiritually nurtured everyone who showed up at her door. When the Nazis invaded Paris, Mother Maria helped Jews by giving them baptismal certificates or helping them escape the city. She was martyred in a concentration camp in 1945. Mother Maria once said this: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” It did not matter whether someone was Christian or Jew, male or female, rich or poor; she saw the image of God in everyone.
That is what affirming the humanity in people means. That is what I strive for. To look at other people and not see how different they are from me, but how similar they are to me. We are all humans, humans with fears and joys and hurts and desires. We are all people of value, created by God, by a God who is far bigger than and far beyond our measly economic and social systems.
I write words that are read by middle class people who have time to read blogs and care about such discussions, but I realize that my words may not change anything. Except for me. Maybe these words, and the words of others, can begin to chip away at me. While I may not be able to tear down the walls of the unspoken caste system, by the grace of God, I can try to tear down one wall: mine. With his help, and with the help of Mother Maria, I can begin to truly value each person as an icon of God incarnate in the world. Maybe next time I sit in that pediatrician waiting room, I can smile at someone instead of wallowing in my own discomfort. Maybe I can strike up a conversation with another mother. Maybe I can find a way to show her that I see her for who she is, and in my heart, I can truly believe that we are the same. Maybe I can look for opportunities to embody the message that no matter how much the world tries to separate us, we are all beloved creations of God.
Today I am linking up with the Spirit of the Poor synchroblog at Caris Adel’s site. This is a monthly roving synchroblog that explores the intersections of economic justice, lifestyle change and spiritual wholeness. This month’s topic is “affirming the humanity.” Read more and/or link up with us here.