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Poverty, Absence, and Riches

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Poverty, Absence, and Riches

Tom Elenbaas


Yesterday, I visited the home of a family in a poor village on the edges of Managua, Nicaragua. This family works in the fields picking the peanuts by hand out of the dirt not picked up by the machines. Depending on the number of peanuts harvested, they can possibly earn up to $2/ day to live on. This places them among some of the poorest of the poor, what would be known by experts as “extreme poverty.”


This women and her children were beautiful, but their story - like so many in this village - is heart-wrenching. Pregnant with her 5th child, while she was at the hospital for delivery, her husband and the neighbors were arrested for dealing drugs. (Drugs and cheap alcohol are a common way to numb the pain of extreme poverty.) The Ministry of Families then came and took away her other 4 children. After returning home, she was also threatened with arrest, but was cleared of having any involvement. After a difficult battle, she was able to get her children back, but without her husband, was not able to care for all the children, so her two boys were sent off to live with her mother while she stayed to care for her 6 year old daughter and her newborn.

The story was moving - and yet her story is not so unlike stories of others I’ve met and heard. What struck me even more, though, this time was this little 6 year old’s play area. I have a 6 year old myself, and when I saw her play area in the corner of the little plot of land with her stuffed bunny, a dress (I imagine for the bunny) and a bible, my heart sank and my throat tightened. This little girl was so beautiful, so joyful, and her smile was as wide as the Pacific ocean. She stood by us as her mother wept, speaking of her husband and the boys and her longing for them to be together. She moved in and out of the hanging fabrics surrounding a cooking area - just as lovely and distracted as any 6 year old. Though the joy is similar to what I would see in my own 6 year old, the differences in not only their circumstances of life, but of their real future was palpable.

During my sabbatical a year and a half ago, I spent some time thinking about the concept of leisure. I was reading a book on the pace of life and busyness we all experience and came across some pretty interesting ideas about the concept of leisure. Quoting some social science research, the author was making the case that those of us in the developing world (the only ones to whom she is writing) act as if we have few choices, little leisure, and that we are somehow caught in an unchangeable rat race of someone else’s making. Her claim, though, is that this is far from the truth.

Leisure is about the ability to choose what you can do with your time and your resources. This struck me because I realized something important about the world in which I live and the world that I have visited called the developing world. When you visit the poorest of the poor, you realize many things. You realize that poverty is less about money and about a lot more. Poverty - as I’ve learned - is about the absence of access to opportunity, the absence of relationship, the absence of dreams, and the absence of leisure.

Let me share about each of these in turn.

First, poverty is about the absence of opportunity. Certainly this is related to money, but is actually more about access than anything. If your travel is limited. If your access to options that can help you move into new opportunities, you have a poverty of opportunity. Your opportunity is limited. This is what incenses so many of us when we hear some conservatives say that anyone can make it, that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If, as is often stated, you have no bootstraps let alone boots, it’s much more difficult to pull yourself up. If you do not have access to education, your opportunities are limited. If you do no and have not seen outside your local community, your opportunities are limited. This is difficult to explain without its integration with the other concepts, so let me move to those.

Second, poverty is about the absence of relationships. If I think back upon my life, I have been blessed by the kinds of relationships that have benefited my opportunity. I had parents who cared about my well-being and were able to do something to encourage it. I had relatives of means who could help me if my parents did not. I grew up in a community that cared about, celebrated, and contributed to my thriving. If something were to have happened to my parents, a community would have embraced, adopted, and cared for me. I am and always have been rich in relationships, relationships that are helpful and life-giving.

Third, poverty is about the absence of dreams. This was a powerful learning experience to me when I met children living in the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and have since since in other areas of the world. When you are merely surviving every day, seeking the next meal, wondering if you will live or if your relatives will live to see another day, week or year, trying to keep alive against the basic elements of wind, rain, and sun - your dreams are limited. A child growing up in these conditions cannot answer the question we in the developing world ask our kindergarteners without a thought: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There is no concept of growing up to be a teacher, fireman, lawyer, or investment banker.

Lastly, poverty is about the absence of leisure. I think of leisure as the ability to choose how to use your time and resources. Each day - though I feel pressed, busy, stressed, and as if there are demands upon my life - I am shocked at how much true leisure I have if I define it this way. I have, in a sense, chosen a lifestyle. I have chosen a living standard. I have chosen a vocation. I have chosen a geographical location. I have chosen the number of children to have. I have chosen to purchase a vehicle, a house, and my possessions. I choose whether to have Netflix, Cable, or an Amazon stick. I have chosen to have a yard to mow and the hobbies I pursue. What happens when your choices are merely obtaining the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? What happens when my day is consumed with shelter, food, water, and staying alive? What, literally, happens to the brain when survival becomes the only unconscious right choice? Itis then that leisure truly becomes the incredible gift it really is. This incredible simplicity and understanding of “need” turns everything that is not in the base of Maslow’s hierarchy (including relationships, dreams, and opportunity listed above) a gift and a bonus.

This is teaching me two things:

First, I’m learning that what I consider the basics are really gifts and are not properly basic at all. So much of what I take for granted is pure, unadulterated gift and is not available to much of the world - real people actually trying to survive each day - and many of them are not. This is changing my concept of thankfulness and I am finding myself being much more grateful each day just for another day, let alone all the gifts that come with each day. The joy that a little girl like the 6 year old I met yesterday has and the joy that I typically have are so far from one another. She has a joy that is not based on anything she has because in her life - everything beyond survival is a gift. Her bunny, dress, and book are more than likely her few prized possessions, and so her “play area” in the dirt that broke my heart was actually a very special place of imagination, creativity, escape, and dreams for her where stuffed bunny’s talk and books open up dreamscapes of worlds where basic sustenance isn’t the highest order of the day.

Second, I’m learning something about simplicity. I am far from living a simple life. I am far from being a person of few possessions living a simple life. I am, however, being slowly drawn towards a more simple life in which I recognize the true basics of life and see everything else as a gift. I am also recognizing that I have made myself a slave to the choices I am responsible for. If I am truly living a life of leisure - meaning I have choices about more than I want to admit in my life - then I can make new choices that will lead me to greater simplicity and a more profound freedom. Too often we complain that our lives are busy, full, and difficult. The question I am beginning to ask myself is - “Well, who chose this life, and do you have any choices that would change that feeling?”

  • Could I choose to be less busy?
  • Could I choose to pursue different dreams?
  • Could I choose to go deeper in some relationships or begin new ones?
  • Could I choose to let go of some of the things that have become my masters?
  • Could I choose to pursue new and life-giving opportunities?

If the answer to these 5 questions is “yes,” then I am unbelievably rich and have the luxury of access opportunity, relationships, dreams, and leisure in a way that most of the world does not. For that... I am thankful, and I wonder... why am I so lucky or privileged or blessed to be among those for whom this is true? But that’s a question for another day.

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