Saturday, January 2, 2010

Making Hardship a Lifestyle Choice

When reading this post by Daphne, I was reminded of raising a similar issue in a conference presentation we did a couple of years ago. We spoke then of how long-term poverty changes one's values and the way one looks at things.

When life becomes unbearably narrow and sparse, you either pack it in, resign yourself to a life of hardship imposed from without, or you change your outlook. Through working on changing your outlook, your values and your lifestyle choices, you learn to adapt to even the harshest of circumstances. Essentially, because you can't - for whatever reason - change your circumstances, you change yourself and how you perceive those circumstances. You make those circumstances your own rather than perceiving what life has served up as beyond your control. You re-view them as choices you have freely made despite the possibility they were forced on you by circumstance, a situation you equally learn to ignore.

This technique makes survival possible. It returns a measure of quality to your life and control over how you live that life. In a very real sense, it's like the victim of sustained abuse who learns to dissociate. Dissociation makes life more bearable for the the target of abuse. Without dissociation the abused couldn't endure.

Sound simple, this changing of oneself?

It isn't. For me, it took a serious, agonizing, three-year breakdown before I was able to come out the other end in an OK frame of mind - still as poor financially as before, but also considerably changed personally. All the previous veneer was gone. I cannot, for example, be anything but blunt anymore; the automatic censor, put in place by upbringing and a society that expects you to be polite and generally accepting of its norms, no longer functions.

For those interested, here's the paper Daphne and I presented to the Jobs and Justice conference in March 2007.

Jobs vs. Mutual Aid: Taking back the meaning of 'work' in community

We were speaking then on behalf of the storytellers of the now-defunct WISE, a group I founded and was led by and for women in poverty. Its first project, Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health: Stories from the front became an instant success and well-known in academic circles and the nonprofit sector. It was quickly followed up by a book of the same name, which I produced myself and is now in podcast form.

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