January 7, 2011


I have a friend who is prosperous. He was born poor but managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps, as the saying goes.  As is often the case with self-made people, he shows a marked impatience with others who cannot perform as he has done. He sees the world through the narrow slits of his eyes and not with his heart. He imagines life can be lived according to a formula: if one works hard, doesn’t overspend and puts a little money aside, then financial obstacle will be overcome and one will lead a happy life. The formula fails to take into account poor health, mental impairments, genetic differences and childhood experiences that shape our outlooks. 

Those who live in abject poverty are not likely to see the world as full of opportunity and hope. Their sites are lowered to simply surviving each day. People with little money often have to choose between the roof over their heads and food on the table. Talk of living within one’s means and setting a little money aside might as well be words of a foreign language. 

A story by Leonid Andreyev called The Little Angel illustrates this mindset well. It’s the tale of a poor boy whose father is dying of consumption and whose mother beats him, driven by the malice in her heart when hope dies. Yet one day the boy, Sashka, is invited to a Christmas party at a big house, the house of his father’s former employers. There he sees hanging on a glittering tree a wax angel, the most beautiful object he has ever seen. The hostess notices he can’t take his eyes off it, so she sends him home with the ornament — back to his hovel, where the snowy winds seep through the crevices of the walls and rattle the windows.  As he crawls into the bed he shares with his father, Sashka, is happy, an emotion almost entirely new to him. He falls asleep with his eyes turned in the direction of the angel which he has hung on the stove’s flue. While the boy dreams, his angel melts and becomes little more than a misshapen lump. For daring to find beauty in his life, he is punished.

The story speaks to me because I was raised in poverty as was my mother before me. I know its grinding cycle. But on some days, when I was a child, my mother would rebel against our narrow lives.  She’d take what little money she’d earned and after buying food, she and I would ride the trolley into Hollywood. There we’d see a movie and share a plate of spaghetti at a cheap restaurant. On the way home, she’d open her purse to show me what was left. Sometimes all that remained was a slim dime. With it, she would buy a bright red lipstick.

If he knew our story, my prosperous friend would shake his head and think my mother was foolish. “That’s why the poor stay poor,” he would probably sigh. But I disagree. I think my mother was brave. Her defiance raised my eyes to the sky. She taught me that whether rich or poor, a person has a right to experience joy.  She lived in poverty all her life, but my mother taught me to dream.