Seven Life Lessons from ‘Growing Up Poor’ Stories-The Advantages of Poverty
This is based on the story of a couple of people who had grown up in a poor family in India. Period — 1980s and 1990s.
I was 4 years old and my brother was around 2 years old. We were getting used to the habit of managing hunger. It was a challenge to get food for more than once in a day. I remember going to bed without food on some of the nights. Whenever we get food, it used to be plain rice and some Dhal devoid of any vegetables, masala. A very plain tasteless food and not easy to eat.
One night, my mother sent me to a nearby small shop to borrow “Bun Bread” as we were hungrier that day. I went to that shop, asked the shop owner for a couple of bread buns. He flatly refused, as we had not yet cleared the earlier debt. I came back empty-handed to home and could remember seeing the tears in my mother’s eyes. After some time my mother somehow arranged a little amount of food from neighbors and fed us. But she went to bed hungrier. Many times, she remained without food, but somehow fed us food as much she could arrange to make us survive. She would not even take a small portion of food. Though I was young, I could see her pains and sacrifices.
This parental self-sacrifice is nothing but the love of the parent for the children. A decision based on heart over head. It was the main reason why human species have evolved over the years.
Being born into a poor family, you would be exposed to this self-sacrifice at an earlier age and you learn that the self is above everyone. As you learn, you start practicing. At an earlier age, you would eat less as much as possible, so that your brother and mother could eat. This practice would soon extend to friends and strangers. In whatever little food/money you have when you see somebody struggling worse than you, you would go and help. In later life, this habit makes you help people without expecting counter-help from them. You learn to put certain things above your own desires and comforts.
I was around 4 years old. One day, while having dinner, my parents were arguing over something. Suddenly my father got angry and kicked the vessels kept in front of him(Oh, Yes, Indians love to sit on the floor and eat the food). Rice, Dhal flew away and fell on the floor(It was sad to see food being wasted considering the situation we were in). I got frightened. My father rarely shows anger. That day arguments turned uglier. The effect lasted for four to five months. I had seen arguments getting uglier in our neighbor’s house, as my friend’s father was a drunkard. It was a violent neighborhood at times.
One of our family friends attempted suicide by pouring kerosene over her body and lighting it up. It happened so quickly before anyone could react. She was a close friend of my mother, used to visit us very often and she was friendly to me and my brother. Though she survived, she had a higher degree of burns. It was an emotionally draining experience to see her. She regretted her decision but things do not come back. It is quite normal to see neighbors with injured heads, hands, and legs. Husband breaking wife’s head, neighbors fighting among themselves — Not an ideal place to spend your childhood. They were all good people, but at times, they lose control of themselves. One day, in a fit of rage, my father almost squeezed my mother’s neck in an argument. I have seen how emotions take control of their minds, release a sudden surge of anger/depression forcing them to do things beyond their control before their rational mind could react.
I had seen how Emotions explode in an instant and when it explodes, a massive physical and mental damage happens. The frequency of those incidents and their impact had taught me to be aware of my emotions and be cautious so that I could avoid emotional bursts and maintain healthy relationships. I had taken efforts to avoid the emotional build up in my mind.
The way to control emotional bursts is through Empathy for others and Self-reflectiveness during those turbulent emotions. Emotional bursts do not happen due to a single incident. It builds up over a period of time towards somebody.
If we keep thinking about those incidents/problems, the emotions become intense and affect our life’s stability. It was important to forget, forgive and move on. Learn to be non-reactive, develop empathy and suspend judgments at those moments.
“Whatever they give, you should not take and eat” — Before visiting any home, my mother would warn us with those words. Though poor, our mother wanted us to be self-reliant, have self-respect and live a dignified life as much as possible. Being starved most of the time, it would be natural for any child to grab food as soon as somebody offers them. As we were afraid of our mother, we restrained ourselves from taking food or water from other’s homes, whenever we visit them.
Sweets, chocolates — though we had it rarely in childhood, and it was very tempting when somebody offers, we had developed a habit of controlling the temptation and refuse the offer.
If I had taken money lying on the street, she would scold, beat us badly and force me to return the money to the same place where it was found.
Due to the fear and affection for her, we had developed the habit of self-control, delaying the gratification. The research shows that the children who resisted temptation were more socially competent, personally effective, better able to cope with the frustrations of the life.
A child would be emotionally upset if he or she had to constantly worry how his or her mother was going to pay house rent, provisional store expenses, school fees. It was painful to see neighboring shop owners refusing to provide rice, vegetables or cereals when mother go and request them. Yes, we should not blame them, as they also need to take care of their children’s future.
Continuous emotional upsets would affect the thinking ability and cripple the capacity of learning. The future would appear bleak most of the time.
My mother would repeat that the only way to get out of poverty was through education. Study hard. She would say “Your education would turn our life”. She would scold badly if we did not score the first rank in our class.
Since we had limited knowledge about the external world, the only goal I had was to score the first rank in my class and not worry about anything else. This simple goal was very clear and easy to achieve, rather than thinking about larger goals in life.
Nowadays, you could see Motivational Coaches were advising you to break your bigger goal into smaller goals. My mother gave us something similar -short and simple goal every year.
“Be the first” in all tests and exams in your class.
Instead of focusing on many directions/goals, I had a simple task to meet my goal — Take books and keep reading. Put efforts, work hard and do not think whether you have the talent or not.
We had a lot of time to study-No television, No Radio — My mother rarely lets us go out and play. She would allow other kids to come into our home and play, but she would never allow us to go and play in other’s homes. This helped us to score good marks, be the first ranked almost all the time, which further motivated me to study hard and the cycle continued.
This simple goal gave me the ability to motivate myself, persist in the face of frustrations, to control impulse, to regulate one’s moods, keep distress from swamping my mind, mastering mind to foster productivity, fight inner battles in mind so that I could focus on work and have clear thought.
SCARCITY PRINCIPLE — Humans naturally keep higher value on objects that are scarce or about to be lost. Due to poor economic conditions, there was a constant threat to my education. How could you study when debts need to be paid? How could you study when getting food itself is tough? How would you pay school fees, college fees? There would be pressure to join some job as early as possible. I was not sure whether I would join the 11th standard. After 12th, I was not sure whether I could join college, but then worrying does not help. These potential threats made me value the education and study as hard as much as possible.
Sadness is one of the basic human emotions and is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging situation. Sadness lingers for a long time even though the experience and corresponding emotional hurt have faded. Sadness would sap our energy, close down our interests in many things. I had seen how persistent sadness had drowned some of our neighbours into depression — few of them tried alcoholism — further fell into the trap and ruined their lives. After witnessing the negative effects of gambling and alcohol, I promised myself not to try them at any time.
- BE ACTIVE — I was lucky that I was not the only child. Having a brother was an advantage — we would be playing at home, whenever we were free. Being active and occupied helped us to overcome sadness most of the times, though it was not intentional. You cannot forget the emotional and physical support provided by your sibling throughout the life.
- SOCIALISING — Another factor to avoid depression — friends. In childhood, every day we had friends coming home after school. We generally walk together as a gang to school and walk back again as a gang. Roamed around in markets as a group — the guys always cracked jokes, teased each other every time in a creative way interlinking with some filmy dialogues, did mimicry, sang localised songs, told stories from films, and it was fun forever. Spending time with friends had the potential to even turn an introvert into an extrovert. Generally, when a person is sad, he would like to isolate himself and remain lonely for some time, to self-reflect. Loneliness and Isolation may lead to depression. I was lucky that socialization with friends helped me to avoid that depression. We never had TV, Radio, listening to music or any other programmes to distract our mind. Unless you distract your mind from the sadness, it would be tough to focus on studies. Friends became a source of your distraction from sadness.
- SMALL WINS — I learned a lot from some of my friends — When they were playing cricket — though they had lost the match, they were happy. The reason might be about the boundary they hit or the runs they scored or the one important wicket they took by clean bowling the batsman. In one of the matches, one of my friends bowled only one good ball out of 3 overs, which clean bowled a batsman — but he cherished that wicket, was on cloud 9 for the next whole week. They applied the same mindset to other instances in life. They were average in studies. If they received test results of total average around 45%, instead of feeling sad, they would feel happier. They focused on the positives than the one negative. This character is contagious and I was happy to acquire those skills unconsciously.
- BEING OCCUPIED — As we were growing up, I and my brother did part-time jobs after school hours, so that we could share some of our daily expenses and support the mother in repaying the debts. Sometimes, we would bring some contract work to home. Our neighborhood kids would help us in finishing those contract work. We were occupied on some of the Saturdays and Sundays too with some contract work. Where was the time to feel sad, if you were occupied physically and mentally most of the time?
- HELPING OTHERS — Growing up in the 80s and the 90s environment — it was your duty to take care of old people in your neighborhoods. Most of us had daily routine work to help them — Example- we had to bring cow milk, vegetables, provisional items daily for senior citizens, from a faraway place. It was part of our lives to take care of older neighbors. We used to teach subjects to our friends, neighborhood kids and we were a kind of sought-after people for education in the neighborhood. If you are spending more hours than anybody in studying, you would obviously be better than others who had not spent that much time. You would feel happier, emotionally better when you see a progress in the life of people whom you have helped. When people comment on your activities, appreciate your help — it increases your confidence further. These things had helped us to keep the sadness away and forget them.
CREATIVITY, PEOPLE SKILLS, RESOURCE PLANNING
What would you do if you or your friends could not afford toys, cricket bats, balls?
- We had to make our own toys with whatever materials available as none of us could afford buying them. We made cars using tree branches and wooden cable reel holders. It was a great learning experience in self-reliance, resource planning. As a kid, we had learned to use a single product for multiple applications.
- We had used our Rubber Flip-Flops(Slippers) as cricket bats. Crumbled paper tied with a rubber band was used to be cricket balls. The more the dense we pack, we could pitch the ball up. Sometimes a polyethylene cover is wrapped around the crumpled paper to avoid the wear, get longer life and help in playing over a wet surface. (Oh, we Indians love Jugaad innovation).
- Our houses were very small — We played cricket sitting on the floor inside our house, as there was limited space to move around. We had used our geometry box as a bat and a notebook as stumps. We made our own rules.
- We had played tennis inside those small homes using notebook’s hardcover as a bat, ball being crumbled paper tied with a rubber band and stools being the net.
- We learned to survive and study without buying books.
- I used to play one man cricket using a small ball made up of paper and the wall being the batsman.
- Tender-Coconut shells used to be the football for us during our school days.
Every child is naturally evolved to be active, full of ideas. As a kid, we were innocent and yet to develop the cynicism — which helped us to explore. As like other kids in the age range of 4–6, we learned our limitations and looked for ways to break and bend the rules to understand how long we could stretch the limitations. Being poor allows you the freedom to explore.
A broken toy may constrain your thoughts, but if you never had a toy- you were completely free to explore.
Somehow we found the lack of resources was never a constraint at that time. Being in a poor environment in the 80s and 90s — you had more friends near your home — we experienced a healthier social life — We constantly interacted with other kids in making those toys — it further quickened the development of creativity, communication, curiosity, and social interaction. Group interaction, group-play with our neighboring friends had exposed us to multiple perspectives for a problem — We could see objects, behaviors, situations from other’s perspective.
During those days, it was rare to see parents playing with the children. Most of the parent’s mind was occupied with their own set of worries. We never expected the parent to spend time with us. So, we were not dependent on our parents for our entertainment — we were free to explore and make our own ways of playing.
Empathy — The ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The more we are aware of our emotional feelings, the more skilled we are at reading the emotions of others. A recent study says that poor people are better at Empathy. Social struggles had built the caring attitude in the minds of poor people. Without relationships, you cannot survive in the violent neighborhood and Empathy builds those relationships.
When a drunkard husband hits his wife, his helpless wife would show her anger toward her two-year-old child. Whenever parents fight, they show their anger, irritation to their children. Some of the children who had undergone intense emotional abuse, emotional neglect, cruel sadistic threats, humiliations, plain meanness in their early childhood had a tough time in adjusting to the society in the later years of life. It was not a peaceful atmosphere. I have seen how some of the Kid’s lives were ruined due to this childhood emotional turmoils.
When I see criminals, outcasts — I would suspend judgment of their character, as we were not aware of his childhood life — I would try to understand why he did that in the first place.
Growing up in a violent neighborhood, peer pressure, constant humiliation necessitated a permanent change in the personal characteristics of some of our friends and had forced them to drink alcohol, be aggressive, fight with others. Slowly they turned into addicts.
At that moment, I realized how my father would have fallen into a bad habit. I had a better environment, better education than my father. Even then, I had seen some of my own friends fall into the trap as they were growing up. I could understand how my father would have felt defenseless against his adulthood temptations aggravated by the troubled childhood. Blaming him for our turmoil, our poverty is not the right thing to do.
As I grew up, I looked at psychology and habit formation in detail. I figured out how it is tough to de-addict a habit without proper guidance. I understood that mere emotional blackmails, pleadings will not work(Everyone of us hoped that people would change for the good due to emotional connect with their family) — Poor families could not afford the time, money for the required psychological treatments — Their problems continue to haunt them unless the next generation changes.
I had a mentor(he had a provisional store) who supported me with part-time work. One day in his home, he saw some old marriage invitation card lying on the floor. He called his wife, “Do not put invitation cards like this on the floor. If I had gone to any house and saw my marriage invitation card lying in their house like how it is now, will I not get hurt? Suddenly, the guy who gave this invitation card comes down here. How would he feel about seeing this?”. I was stunned to hear this dialogue — putting oneself in the other’s shoes. He was the first guy who taught me empathy.
He gave me another important piece of advice for life -”You should not miss anybody’s marriage if you are invited. Do not miss any of the funerals. You could miss marriages due to some situations, but make sure that you attend all the funerals. If any of your friends were sick, please visit often, spend time with them. You would be doing a lot of good to the society if you do this.”
Being poor, as you grow up, many would feel sympathy for you and would come forward to help by offering money to pay the fees, by offering part-time jobs. Without that kind of people, I would not have joined the higher school, college. They helped me without expecting a counter help. The only advice they gave me “I understand your struggles. Once you grow up, I would like you to understand other’s struggles and help them. We do not want the money back” — Again Empathy.
Most of the mothers in our neighborhood had unsolvable, unpredictable family problems, but they would hide their emotions and show a different, pleasant face to the outside world, including my mother. But you could figure out it easily. How? The environment would teach you to subconsciously learn and understand nonverbal communications like the tone of voice, gestures, postures, facial expressions, and body language. Body languages play a major role in most of the fields and I was lucky that I was subconsciously trained to observe the body language and facial expressions.
We are all unique. Everyone’s childhood life is unique than anybody else. All of us can write a nice book about our own life, which could be an example for others. Every one of us will have a lot of little stories, moments of their life, which could teach others. There is no need to look at others for motivation. We need to just look inside of us and look back at our own past life to understand our strengths, uniqueness, and use them to move our life and other’s life forward.
Reference : Emotional Intelligence By Daniel Goleman