On Being Broke
Commonplace Newsletter #71
Inspiration can come from the strangest places. It can come from a single line of conversation that you overhear while eavesdropping on the bus. It can come from peoplewatching outside a cafe and then daydreaming about the imagined life of the strange looking fellow who just walked past. It can come from old books of course, old films, old fragments of songs and the rememberances of things past. And in the case of todays essay it can come from simply putting your hand in your jacket pocket and finding nothing in there but lint. Because you see it turns out that I’m fairly broke at the moment. I’m hard up, skint, brassic, broke. I’m not quite on my uppers, and I never consider myself down and out no matter how bad it gets, but I am shall we say a little fiscally wanting at this particular moment in time.
But one of the great consolations of being a writer- and being an essayist especially- is that everything that happens to you and everything that you make happen, whether good bad or indifferent, is all material. All of it you can use. All of it you can turn into something. And so, from this perspective there are few things in life that are really, truly, unequivocally and crushingly bad.
I’ll give you an example. The first flat I lived in outside of university halls had a broken toilet. Now for whatever reason- dodgy landlord, me and my flatmate not getting our act together to get the repairs organised, some kind of bureaucratic delay, I can’t recall- the thing didn’t get fixed for a good while. We had to live with it. The pipes were fine, as far as we could tell, it was just the flush mechanism. And our home repair knowledge in those pre youtube times was not sufficient to remedy it. So we devised a scheme whereby after each us did our business we filled a mop-bucket with bathwater and flung it down the toilet pan. It worked. Hitting the rim would cause splashback and turn the tiny bathroom into a swimming pool but if you did it just right the offence in question was flushed away no problem. With time my flatmate and I honed our bucket-flushing technique so that we could project the water with the speed, accuracy and vaulting overhand motion of a test cricket fast bowler. I look back on it almost fondly now, with a wry little half-smile.
And that’s the thing about being broke. It can be almost fun. From a distance, once time has erased the depressing edges and left you with a store of anecdotes that you can trot out about the bad old days when you were young and poor and foolish. As long as you were slowly on the up and up and as long as you are now in a more prosperous and less precarious position.
The problem of poverty then, in its relative and Western guise, is not so much the poverty itself but the time. Anyone with the energy of youth can withstand poverty for a few years. But it’s when it runs to a few decades that the problem arises. It’s when it becomes permanent. It’s the way it slowly grinds at you and wears your spirit down that is the thing. This is what the moralisers miss with their pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps talk.
(Incidentally this phrase of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was initally devised as a piece or satire against such unfeeling moralisers. Because of course to actually do so is physically impossible. But this inconvenient fact has been erased by the passage of time and now the phrase serves as the polar opposite of its original intent. It’s funny how it goes sometimes, isn’t it?)
The longer you are in poverty the longer you are likely to stay there. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer seems to be a fact of life sadly, one which I believe no governmental diktat, wealth distribution scheme or aggressive taxation initiative would do much to fix. And I say that as someone who would most likely be the beneficiary if such sweeping reform were to actually be enacted.
You see the problem with poverty in my experience is that, not having much money at any one time, you simply don’t know how to spend it well. How to use it wisely. You oscillate between being extremely stingy with what money you have in an attempt to dig yourself out of the hole and then having spent months with zero pleasures you blow a good chunk in one frivolous, regrettable, spent-thrift splurge and are so back to where you started fro. Near enough anyway.
From the outside, from the vantage point of having a little bit of cash behind you this seems stupid and reckless- and it is- but the amount of sheer will, determination and delayed gratification needed to stay on the path for long enough to leave penury is beyond the realm of most peoples ability. By definition. If this weren’t the case so many people wouldn’t be in the hole in the first place.
Now or course a lot of people do themselves no favours and the beginning of brokeness in those who were not born into poverty comes from foolishly and impulsively taking on consumer debt for mimetically-driven keeping-up-with-the-joneses nonsense. Oversized houses, oversized cars, oversized televisions, oversized holidays. The standard litany. But if someone falls for a confidence trick I’m not sure what good it does to berate and ridicule the mark in question. Because as well as the passage of time, the other thing that makes poverty sting is the guilt and embarrassment.
No one wants this. No one wants to struggle or have to worry about how the bills are going to be paid. No one wants to live in fear- whether it be fear or the knock of a debt collector or fear of having to make some hasty excuse as why you won’t be joining your friends for dinner and drinks. So besides the desire to have things we can’t afford how do so many people get into this mess in the first place?
Well as with every other addiction, vice, unwise decision and regrettable course of action I would argue that the real issue at root is a problem of meaning. Vices fall away for the most part when you are on the path. When you have something to do and to strive towards that fulfils you. This is a trite truism but it is nonetheless true. Those who look back fondly on their period of poverty are invariably those who were poor while they were working towards some goal or vision. They had both hope and also something to occupy their time to stop the full realisation of the misery of their situation to sink in. That’s the secret.
When you find your task, your goal, your purpose many of the vagaries of life get drowned out. They fade. You are too busy focusing on mastering whatever it is you are called to do. Which is why- though my pockets hold lint and my bank balance is a sad sight- this particular bout of brokeness is not bringing me down. Because I am too busy occupied with trying to build something to hardly notice all of the consumer goods that I don’t have and all of the show-off experiences that I am not having. I don’t care.
Having found the work, most other things beside the work fall by the way side. And whatever your current financial situation I hope the same becomes true for you.
Until next time,
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He he, me making it on your newsletter is kind of an accomplishment!
Platitudes aside, when one drowns in the their craft for the sake of the craft itself, everything else takes the sidelines. This is true not just in the case of being broke, but also when struggles through strained relationships, death of a loved one, etc. If you’ve found something that you can drown yourself in, you need to be grateful for it.
The inklings of this I’ve seen can be found in your childhood memories - think about the things you loved doing as a kid, because that is where your heart truly lies. I loved spending time on the shop floor, among machines - in the cacophony. I still do - although it involves getting a lot of grease on yourself - both in reality and metaphorically, (sticking to it) - was one of the best decisions of my life. I will always be grateful for discovering my calling.
It’s such a joy to read your essays Tom - your contentment and excitement jumps out of your writing. I’m glad that you’ve found your calling too!
I just checked out the Max Richter piece and it is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! You might want to check out the OST of Nomadland - it complements this Max piece very well. Have a marvellous Sunday!
"Anyone with the energy of youth can withstand poverty for a few years. But it’s when it runs to a few decades that the problem arises. It’s when it becomes permanent. It’s the way it slowly grinds at you and wears your spirit down that is the thing."
That's all too true. And it's usually at this point that you are likely to develop vices as crutches to bear the weight. When I was working at a retail bank, I used to see this everyday. People who were always flat broke by the 20th of the month but smoking 2 packs a day. Or drinking a third of their salary in pubs. It's easy to laugh at them and call them weak and irresponsible, but when you're living on the edge, those little vices become more than vices; they're helping you make it through. And when you managed to save a little, there's usually a car problem (you tend to have a lot of car problems when you can only buy broke-people types of cars), or a water issue in the bathroom, and just like that you're back to square one. Add it to the misery tax.
Perhaps the worst aspect of being broke is that you're never at ease in your head and you can't focus on the present, because the future reminds itself to you all the time. You can't make plans, you can't project yourself, and all your energy is consumed on survival mode. With time, you begin to wonder if life is ever going to take off, because what you tought was a little bump on the road has now turned into 1, 2, 5, 10 years of the same bump, and you've been stuck on this portion of the road forever. No wonder some have the urge to stop, make camp and call it a home. If you're not careful, those thoughts macerate and after some years they turn into layers of sediments, hardened fossils that are part of your soil and that you won't be able to get rid of.
As you said Thomas, the only way to pull through is to realize you can either suffer for nothing, or find a meaning in your suffering; i.e. suffering towards a goal. Easier said than done, but really, is there an other choice? I haven't found any.