You Are Poor

I wanted to be a wealthy, self-made man. I tried, but got stuck on the awfully obvious fact that wealth depends on existence. I must first exist in order to own my books, Apple products and college savings. Such an simple truth, but such a prickly problem for a man about the business of being wealthy, that is, of owning much. For do I own my existence?

No. Upon extremely little reflection, I have come to understand that my existence is as given as soup ladled into a bowl by an obnoxious youth group leader wearing a Jesus-tee at the charity kitchen, entirely dependent on others, namely — and on the most obvious level — my parents.

We, the rich and the trying, are as foolish and adorable as children who, let into the pet store by their parents to pick out a guinea pig, claim sole and rightful ownership of the animal, forgetting momentarily that they were brought into the pet store and given a field of possible ownership. All ownership is founded in gift, all self-made riches are dependent upon a handout existence, and there are no self-made men, for self-made men have mothers.

Poverty is the primary fact of human existence. Everything we have we were first given. We are not like the horse, who can run after birth, nor like the insect, born with all the instincts it needs to thrive, nor like the oak tree, growing and unfolding according to its nature. The human person is that kind of creature who becomes himself (who actualizes his personal potentiality) through gift. We are rational animals, sure, but we are only properly rational through the use of language — and language is given to us by our parents and our community. Man distinguishes himself from the animals by his sense of morality, sure, but morality is taught, and the virtues are given to us by our parents and community. “We are adapted by nature to receive them, and [they] are made perfect by habit.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics) We are given wellbeing and stability — whether psychological or spiritual — through love, and love is given.

I’m trying to say that the newborn human being is that type of creature who dies if he is not touched, that we are the cosmic height of poverty — born begging. If from this bareness we are then clothed with the capacity to buy houses, fine, good, but we are no more rich, no more self-made than the welfare recipient or the birds of the field, who find themselves feathered with the capacity to fly.

If all ownership is rooted in gift, and all wealth is a dependency upon our parents, then poverty is less of a time-period of material destitution as much as it is a final honesty, a stripping of self to the core of what it means to exist. We may own, we may even own a lot, but only because we were let into the pet store, given our capacity to own. Poverty is honesty. This, at least, is what I believe Wallace Stevens is expressing in his poem Lebensweisheitspielerei.

Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong 
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.

Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.

Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation

  • someguywithakatana

    Uuuuuuh… is it me, or does this post seem… unfinished… like there should be more after the poem, right?

    • Sally Sparrow

      I think he just forgot a period at the end of the poem. Marc, please add a period after “annihilation.” Thanks!
      Also, good post.

  • James

    I think you wanted to say the soup was ladled.

  • James

    I think traditionally it was understood that self made man meant someone who came from poverty, that didn’t get a head start from a rich parent. IMHO it is only recently that people have tried to interpret it literally. The same people who think they have to interpret the Bible literally?

    • Montague

      Not necessarily. Sure, the term “self-made man” is recent; but self-made men, in a sort of artistic or social or other sense, is as old as humanism – as old as the saying “man is the measure of all things.” But man, even as John, is given the rod to measure the temple, and judge the angels.

  • nanomanoman

    You may be Catholics but American culture is Calvinist – “success”, particularly financial, is seen as getting one closer to Heaven. This may be why Americans particularly may have problems with the “poverty” message – poverty is for “losers”, the damned.

    • Francisco Javier Guerra Mirele

      Matthew 19:24

      :O J. C. Didn’t think so ;)

    • craig

      Not exactly true. Traditionally it’s the other way around — the idea that ‘God helps those that help themselves’, i.e. doing the things to get closer to Heaven also will naturally lead to success on earth. (This philosophy is right in line with much of the Old Testament, but not the New.) But the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ heresy where God wants you to be rich is mostly a recent phenomenon.

      Americans have problems with the poverty message because they are financial ‘Pelagians’ for the most part: they tend to be generous with those whose poverty is unearned and seemingly unfixable (orphans, invalids, etc.), but not with those whose poverty appears to be self-inflicted by poor choices of behavior.

      • nanomanoman

        Yeah I meant associated tbh. I think the point is how poverty is associated, I’m not making a judgement about the charity of Americans. The Calvinism associates poverty with a lack of Godliness, hence the resistance. That’s all.

  • Montague

    Appropriately Chestertonian, Appropriately Christian, Appropriately True.

    Although I do agree with the previous commentator who felt that this post was incomplete. After such a crescendo of poetic prose, suffused with Logos, Ethos, and Pathos, the poem itself seemed a far less clear vision, far less poetic, less well-spoken (though this may be my blindness to poetic vision; I am only capable of appreciating old simple things like meter and rhyme and alliteration, which please the masses of history.)

  • Steve

    Irrelevant: the statue in the picture is too bulky with muscle for any practical purpose. You don’t need that much strength for any kind of typical human activity (I’m talking about labor, sports, survival, war, not typing comments on a blog) and all that bulk will just reduce flexibility and kill cardio. Seriously, that guy would be winded after a light jog. That level of musculature only pays off in a bodybuilding competition.

  • Manny

    I love Wallace Stevens and that is a wonderful poem. I love your general message here, but I have to say your opening sentence made me laugh. I forget exacty how old you are, but I know you’re not far from twenty. Very, very few people are self made at twenty. I thought the rest of the post might be a wink at your age and claim, but apparently not. I think it generally takes a little more time than that.

  • AffanGul

    Very poetic indeed, but it leaves out one crucial ingredient. Free will. Man was given much, including the will. In some the will is strong, in others the will is weak. From those who are given much, much is expected. Those with strong will are required to use it for good. To amass wealth in and of itself is neither a good, nor an evil. It is the intention behind it, and the use that it is put to that determine. Selfish wealth is an evil and will drag a man down. Productive wealth that helps all who come across it is a blessing. Wealth that empowers others to do good is what wealth is all about.

    • Dillon T. McCameron

      “Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.” ― G.K. Chesterton

  • Jakeithus

    Excellent thoughts.

    For a musical perspective on this may I recommend “Beggars” by Thrice. It’s one of my favourite songs, by my favourite band, and is brutally honest when discussing the idea that we “own” anything in this world.

  • Daniel Bader

    You seem to be conflating being “self-made” with being “rich”. You also seem to be conflating being “self-made” with being self-sufficient. Being self-made and being rich are simply different things.

    In any event, you
    do make a reasonable point that poverty reminds us that we are
    dependent beings, rather than independent beings, thereby reminding us
    of our dependence on God. So, however, would starvation or falling off
    of a bridge. I would respectfully suggest that we concern
    ourselves with reducing poverty, and find other opportunities to
    remind ourselves of our dependence on the divine.

  • Ryan Kostrzewa

    Hey Marc, what’s your email? I couldn’t find it on the site…thanks!

  • Mike

    It’s interesting though, that there are no poor people in America. Our poor people are comfortable middle class in most of the world. Our poor have government housing, government phones, government medical care, government food, etc… Heck, our “poor” are clinically obese. There is no such thing as a poor person in America.