When I was a child, there was a restaurant in rural central Florida called Po Folks that served cheap Southern cooking. Given the poverty of my childhood, of which it may be said that country and blues songwriters who had writer’s block could have looked at my childhood for good song ideas, it was not a surprise that among the restaurants I should be most familiar in my youth, it would be one whose motto was “I’m po’, but I’m proud,” which was on the t-shirts that they would sell and that is an accurate description of my own spirit both then and now. I am not so alien from the young man I once was, after all. It should also be noted that among my potentially fatal weaknesses is a love of sweet tea and southern cooking (especially foods like southern fried chicken, red velvet cake, and buttermilk pancakes), an especially serious potential danger given that three members of my father’s family (including my father himself) died of heart attacks. It would be typical of my life that I should be naturally drawn to that which is especially hazardous for me.
Some people try to romanticize poverty, but there really isn’t anything particularly romantic about poverty. Truth be told, riches alone aren’t necessarily very romantic either, in the absence of relationships as well as fulfillment, but it is not as if poverty gives someone insight into the human experience except the sort of pressures and degradation that human beings can suffer that often obscure the image of God that is within us. Since we as human beings tend to judge others by appearances, shabby appearances and straightened conditions tend to lead others to think poorly of us. This can be especially troublesome when those who are poor have a rather prickly sense of pride and honor and an extreme sensitivity to insults. Given the sort of environment where I grew up, I became very familiar with that sort of person very early in life, and often found myself extremely embarrassed by the conditions of my early life and the way that my life in general has not risen to the level of my talents and abilities and potential.
I get the feeling that I will have a lot of fun joking around with some new acquaintances who seem to have the same sort of sarcastic and clear-eyed view of life that I tend to have. When hearing about the sort of pride we should have in what we do, it is fairly easy to joke around that pride is a lot easier to have when that pride is rewarded financially. Of course, there are other ways besides money to show someone respect, but in this day and age and in this society, a company generally gets the sort of pride that it is willing to pay out. People judge the way they are viewed by the sort of benefits they receive for their work, at least up to a certain level. Some of us, myself included, are rather proud because of the way we are inside (whether that is good or bad), but most people are proud to the extent that they are treated well by others, which makes our treatment a matter of serious importance in helping other people develop the right sort of self-respect.
So, if we want people to be proud (in the right way, that is), what do we need to do? For one, we can value what they do, not just through words but through actions. People are generally pretty good at recognizing the body language of genuine respect and being able to recognize those who are just phony politicians looking for support. That said, phony respect is better than none at all, and if we do not appreciate others, there are plenty of other people who will be willing to at least mouth the right words even if they do not feel respect in their hearts. The way we can value what others do includes employers giving good salaries (as well as bonuses to high achievers), generous benefits, as well as helping to keep up morale and spirit through genuine concern and attention. We can value people through affection, friendship, kind words, generous deeds, and good attitudes. Given the lack of civility and respect in our culture and general, perhaps we would be better off paying less lip service to respecting the most humble and start acting, so that those who are better off can receive respect after having given it.
I must admit that I’m not particularly the most avaricious person myself. My longings have not been for great amounts of wealth, but rather like Agur (a wise but largely forgotten figure from three thousand years ago ), I have sought a middle sort of existence that does not lead me to be so poor that I need to steal nor so wealthy that I forget to show appreciation and gratitude for God. I would never wish to think that my modest wisdom had led to my blessings, but neither would I want to be in a state where thinking of my blessings would be a difficult task either. Whether I simply lack the opportunity to receive the sort of life I would like, or whether it is simply a matter of patience (or some sort of trial that must be endured), or whether it is through a flaw of character that must be remedied, it is not my place or interest to say. For truly the world is very quick to judge others in that which it does not understand, and we are all too quick to blame others or outside circumstances and not take responsibility where we are able. Somewhere in the middle is that balance that allows us to have proper self-respect, and where others show their honor for us in deeds and not merely empty words.