The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

Life Notes


The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:10

During my recent trip to Honduras, a line from the movie Still Alice lingered in my mind. The movie is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice is asked to share her experience with a group of researchers while she is still lucid enough to do so. She writes out her thoughts over a period of weeks so she can read them on stage. The line in her speech that struck me was this: “I am not suffering; I am struggling.” I thought it was odd, as it seemed to me she was both struggling and suffering – at least that was my interpretation of her condition.

I just named what I believe to be one of the biggest obstacles to helping those we label as in need of assistance – we impose our interpretation of their condition upon them, and then seek to interject our solution. We do this with the most charitable and best of intentions. For me, I contemplated the difference between struggling and suffering in the context of the people I met in Honduras. Certainly, there are conditions they struggle with – clean drinking water, for example, but they also found ways to cope with most issues. They struggle with high crime rates and an inadequate infrastructure, at least by our standards. I saw much of what I considered substandard housing. What I did not see, however, was a lot of suffering. In fact, and in retrospect, I think the cross-section of folks I met in Honduras suffer less than a similar cross-section of folks in the U.S.

Our interpretation of the condition of another is pivotal to how we react to them, as well as how or if we try to help them. For a suffering person, we offer comfort and support. We may feel pity and offer sympathy for their condition, sometimes even empathy. We may try to assure them things will get better, even when we do not know that to be the case. Often, we respond to suffering with acts of mercy to try to ease the distress.

For a struggling person, however, acts of mercy, pity, and sympathy may not be well received or helpful. A person who is struggling is attempting to better his or her own condition, but circumstances beyond their control often work against them. They need assistance, but not interference. Consider beavers. They build dams in streams to form water pools for their nests. Unfortunately, a beaver dam stops the water from flowing as it normally would, causing problems for those downstream. Sometimes, a beaver dam must be removed in order to restore the water flow. I think this image illustrates the plight of many struggling people. One way we can help is by identifying where the “flow” of resources is blocked and assist in getting materials flowing as needs demand.

Two manifestations of the desperation of poverty are suffering and struggling, and if we are to help those in poverty, we need effective tools for both. Everyone deserves the respect to say how or if they receive assistance. Suffering and struggling are two very different conditions, and if we are to help, we must recognize and honor the difference.

Come home to church this Sunday. Bring your poverty to the cross.

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