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On Being Poor--"What's the Big Deal, Just Accept Help"

alec vanderboom

Receiving Charity is something that is hard. It's good to ask for help. It's good to accept help that is offered.

I love being poor because it makes me FREE. I'm more free to say no.

So when you are poor, people freak out. They want to "rescue" you from your poverty. I'm still trying to figure out the boundaries, but I like saying no to presents that aren't good for me. So here are my working guidelines--fledgling boundaries if you will.

First: a gift is free. It's from the heart. There are no strings attached. When you receive a gift that is inspired by God--it makes your whole heart sing. Even if I'm embarrassed or tongue-tied--there's a rush of good feelings inside my heart that makes me happy.

There are these other objects that are called "gifts" that aren't really gifts. There isn't a hidden price tag to the gift. Here are some hidden price tags I've run into in the past.

--you are obligated to thank the giver--profusely. Often. In person. In writing. On the telephone. Over and over again for months, if not years. You have a "thank you debt" that never gets paid--despite fulfilling the polite society guidelines of Miss Emily Post.

--you are obligated to display the gift in a prominent place. If your children receive new clothes, they must be dressed in such clothes when a giver visits. Or pictures taken in the new clothes and posted promptly on Facebook. If it's a coffee maker, it should be in your kitchen when the giver comes to visit.

--if you ever don't "use the gift" or "appreciate the gift appropriately" the giver will come into your house and take the gift back. (The old non-PC term for that act was "Indian giver")

--conversely, if you politely tell the giver you can't use their offered gift--because it's a live pony-- a gift pony will still show up on your door step two weeks later anyway--without any hay, or a saddle, or a stable to put the pony in at night.

--you are given (usually with a dramatic flourish) old junk--things that are broken, old, worn out. Bulky items that you are actually doing the giver a favor by taking instead of necessitating a run to Goodwill.

(I run into this often. I feel like there is a syndrome where people don't want to give to Goodwill but do want to give "useful" things to someone they know. Sometimes I take a collection of objects like clothes, sort through them, and donate almost every to Goodwill. There was a time in my life when I lived in a 2 bedroom City Apartment and didn't own a car. I started saying "No' because I couldn't get to Goodwill.)

--you are given a gift, but this gift still belongs to them. You only have "use" of the gift for a specific time and a specific purpose. Usually this limit is unspoken and applies to mysterious things that are not self-evident, such as used crib sheets as opposed to heirloom jewelry.

--you are given a shiny, attractive, non-dangerous gift and mysteriously told "Do NOT let your children touch this, ever!" even though you share your life with five children under the age of 10.

I'm sure I'm the only one on the internet who has such nutty stories to tell, but the "non-gift" gift giving examples could go on all day.


So this is my discovery while living in an imperfect world as a new Carmelite.  Many people in America have a sick relationship to "stuff." For the first time this Advent, I did not think it was crazy that many women spent lots of stressful time and money shopping for gifts during the Christmas season. I did not say smugly "the best things in life aren't presents" and "you should just remember the real reason for the season--Jesus!" I recognized that many "I'm too busy to pray during Advent" Christian woman, are like me. They have people in their life who will displeased if they don't open up the right "stuff" under their Christmas tree.

A lot of people (me included) don't have HIM. There is a hole where He is supposed to be. And that hole gets filled up with stuff. Maybe your drug of choice is Achievements, Popularity, Shopping or Cocaine. Society grades you differently depending upon which addiction you choose, but God sees it similarly. It's all "NOT Him."

So when I start to take myself out of the "if you love me, give me lots of stuff in the exact manner I demand in the moment" (which is always a moving target) things get weird.  

I don't have it figured out yet. When I accept gifts as gifts, I'm happier. I'm trying to get to the point where the Nuns are--they are so gracious when they accept gifts of food, money (or as the Little Sisters of the Poor laugh when they receive free grave sites--these Sisters care for the elderly, and get them just when they most need them). But the Sisters can't accept everything right? I mean, they don't accept clothing for themselves--they have a habit. They have a uniform.

(Sometimes I feel like donations of clothing and baby stuff are the most popular offer. Danya said when she announced a new pregnancy she could quote "hear the dump trucks backing in in the back yard." I feel that way too. Yet baby stuff by the fifth kid is virtually not needed. Clothes are also the hardest thing. All of my kids are artistic and individual. They are picky. They've got strong likes and dislikes. It's rare to find someone who is bigger than your kid who has the same taste.)

In the end--coming out of secular America and embracing the Carmelite ideal is uncomfortable--but worthwhile. I've very thankful for St. Teresa of Avila for being such an inspiration for me on this journey.