HARVARD DIARY
Voluntary Poverty

January-February 1987By Robert Coles



All the time I used to hear Dorothy Day speak of "voluntary poverty," and then I would think of the many poor people I have known - their urgent and profound and continuing desire to break out of poverty, enjoy the various "goods and services" the rest of us manage to find available for ourselves. Once in a poor neighborhood of Boston I talked with some devoutly religious people about their circumstances; and having heard them hope (against hope) for a better time of it, and having heard them spell out that hope with a shopping list of sorts (what a release from poverty would mean in concrete terms), I took a deep breath and made a plunge: "There are some who would argue that possessions can rob us of our closeness to God. We forget Him because our minds are on what we want to buy, to own, day and night."

A man sitting opposite me didn't hesitate long before he began talking: "It must be wonderful to be in the position of worrying about the possessions you have! I've never gotten into that kind of situation, and I suspect I never will! If we get through one day, that's fine; we start worrying about the next day. If I had enough money so I didn't have to think about money all the time - well, that would be a great breakthrough for me! I doubt, though, that I'd start thinking that I was in a lot of trouble with God, just because I could take my next meal for granted, and the one after that, and so could my wife and kids.

"Now, maybe you know something we don't know! I've heard of the spoiled rich! But I don't think I'm in danger of becoming one of them - not just yet. It really gripes me - to tell you the truth - hearing people who've had it a lot easier than I have, tell the world that it's bad, and you're in danger before God, if you get too interested in food and clothes and money. When you're poor, you have no choice - unless you want to hoist the white flag and surrender, starve to death maybe! It's nice that some people can turn away from the comforts they've known, and then start telling the rest of us that we should ignore ‘material things,' and only pay attention to God, and to the 'higher things.' When you were giving us that rap, I thought to myself: does he really believe that for himself, and even if he does, what does he think we do here, spoil ourselves with fancy food and clothes and lots of vacations and lots of buying and buying? We're not sure where our next dollar is coming from - and then there are people who say give it all up, give it all up! I'll bet they've never known 'poverty' the way we have - and I'll bet when they give it all up, they still don't! I mean, they know how to get by, and they know who to go to for help, if they're really in a lot of trouble!"

In a blunt manner he had put his fingers squarely on the utter, rock-bottom reality of "class" as it comes to bear not only on the everyday motions of our life, but on the assumptions we have with respect to what is or is not likely or possible. As I heard that man make those statements I thought of some of the reasonably well-to-do and well-educated people I know who have made a point of telling me, and others, how much they scorn the "crass materialism of this culture" (as I recently heard it put, in a not completely original way); how earnestly they hope to rid themselves of the consumerist preoccupations so many others seem to have; how fervently they would prefer an "alternative lifestyle," if not (as one person put it in a lecture I attended) a "life free of property consciousness." When I asked what such a life would entail, I was told that "voluntary poverty" was the person's aim.


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