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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