The Poorest Common Denominator

When I was a law student and baby lawyer, scrounging to afford three (store brand) fish sticks a day for dinner, more senior lawyers were often kind to me by paying for meals or a beer when they invited me out to dinner. I made no bones about being poor. It’s no shame to be poor, as Reb Tevye explained. But it’s no honor, either.

In time, it was my turn to take others out to dinner, to buy the drinks, and I did so remembering the kindness others showed me. In serial twits, a young woman explained a very different view, one that reflected a significant shift in perspective.

To call it “alienating” was an odd choice of words. Were people so dense, so self-absorbed, that they didn’t realize their “friends” might be unable to financially keep up with them? And the next few twits offered some thoughts that might be seen as too obvious to be necessary, and yet they were.

If someone refused to continue a relationship because of her inability to pay for the ride, they weren’t really a friend, but that doesn’t help much. Yet, the storm went in an unexpected direction.

It sucks to be poor. If someone knows you don’t have $10 to spare and, nonetheless, deliberately puts you in a position that humiliates you, they’re not a decent person and certainly not your friend. However, if the problem is that you’ve lied to them, lied about it, because you don’t want others to know you’re too poor to go to a party or dinner, then it’s not their fault. You’re the liar. They’ve done nothing to you.


Someone else’s wedding should be all about you? You’re poor, so they should decline wedding presents to make you comfortable?

That person who orders the most expensive thing on the menu, then wants to split the bill so the person who orders only the app, because she that’s all she can afford, has to pay for it? Or has to call bullshit? That’s wrong too.

What this reflected is the clash of self-centered people. There are people blind to the fact that their friends can’t afford to do the things they can. There are the people who feel the pain of poverty, but expect the world to eat fish sticks because that’s all they can afford. There are the people relishing their expensive tastes, and putting others in the awkward position of having to decline participation, and the people who feel entitled to lie about their inability to pay for it.

This is what comes of a world of entitled narcissists, where each player views the world as centering around their needs and feelings. The problem isn’t that some people are doing better than others. Nor is the problem that some are doing worse. The problem is that both believe they get to control other people’s worlds to suit their needs.

Much as I can sympathize with @MamaGhoulish, remembering well what it was like when I didn’t have a pot to piss in, I was never so bold as to expect others to deny themselves whatever they could afford because I couldn’t. My poverty was my problem, not theirs. And if someone invited me to an affair that I couldn’t afford to attend, my response was, “sorry, but I can’t afford it.”

Then again, I never lost a friend for being poor.

Now that I can afford to buy dinner for others, I’m happy to do so. It’s meant as a pay-it-forward thing, but this suggests that the message is lost. And indeed, looking back on some of the people for whom I bought dinner, this may well be the case. When someone bought them dinner, it wasn’t because of sensitivity, generosity or kindness, but because they were entitled to it. And when dessert was done, so were they.

A generation of entitled narcissists won’t work. You’re no more entitled to dictate how others should live their lives than they are entitled to do the same to you. It may feel unfair, but it’s not. It’s just life. Lying to others to conceal your embarrassment about it, and then blaming others for not being more accommodating of your situation, is untenable.

It sucks to be poor, and sometimes it can’t be helped. But if you can’t manage to be honest with your friends, and you can’t manage to realize that your friends may not be capable of paying, then it’s a recipe for failure. Nobody owes you dinner. Not everybody can afford to go to your destination wedding in Aruba. That this never dawned on you is the product of your self-centered view of the world. That’s no way to go through life.

It’s no shame to be poor. It is a shame to be a narcissist, and anyone can be one, rich or poor.

22 comments on “The Poorest Common Denominator

  1. wilbur

    I wondered what MamaGhoulette said … er, tweeted … to set Ms. Towelette off. Then I read some of MT’s other tweets, and realized what you showed us were the best of the bunch.

    For example, MT informed us all that employers like to hire enthusiastic people because they do more work so the employer doesn’t have to hire as many people. The bastards.

    Truly edifying stuff like that.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is an overarching mindset when you view the world through the prism of your personal problems. One is that there are many problems in the world, and every one of them is someone else’s fault for not doing what’s good for you. This ain’t gonna work.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    Contemplating whethet to tell the crisis crnter you’re trying to reason with a moist towelette.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    If the shift in perspective you note is just a couple of outliers, then meh — outliers gonna outlie.

    But if it’s widespread, it may partly be due to a shift in reality.

    If poverty is viewed as a temporary condition, it may be easy to be grateful to those who help to ameliorate this temporary affliction, and easy to vow to pay it forward when your time comes.

    If poverty is viewed as the new normal, it may be easy to be resentful of those who have more.

    Of course, despite the reality that, as a whole, millennials are not doing as well as their parents, some of them are doing quite well indeed. One would suspect that the ones doing well of their own accord are not, generally, the ones who started out being resentful.

    Tangentially, sharing Cracked’s 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person with millennials is very useful for me. Some of them get with the program, and the others get confirmation of their bias that I’m a raging asshole to be avoided at all costs. It’s a win either way.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or it isn’t based on economics at all, but on attitude about “me v. the world.” There have always been poor, and rich or poor, it’s always good to have money. There’s nothing new about it.

      (Always loved that Cracked piece.)

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Nothing is truly new, of course, but millennials are expected to be the first generation in awhile to do worse than their parents. Of course, that perception/expectation is yet another feedback to all these connected loops. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Probably for some of them.

        1. SHG Post author

          I suspect that will prove to be the case, but it’s really not related to the questions raised in this post. Within a generation, it’s ceteris parabus.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            I was to narcissistic to fully absorb the last couple of paragraphs of your post. What can I say?

  4. B. McLeod

    The style and content (vel non) are hauntingly similar to the writings of the mysterious “Shannon Achimalbe,” who is “taking a break” from writing columns at ATL, while she “travels.”

    These destination wedding things, in particular, are not everybody’s cup of tea. I don’t go to them because they are garish spectacle of conspicuous waste, and I don’t believe in them. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the couple, and anyone who knows me very well will understand why I send my “regrets.” There is no reason to do more than check the box for non-attendance on the RSVP (which typically does not have a space for explanations). That would be equally true for anyone whose reason for non-attendance is inability to afford the junket. Believe me, there will be ample opportunity to express your thoughts for the happy couple as you ooh and ah over the Facebook images of the grand event.

      1. B. McLeod

        If ever I meet her, I probably will. Not because I expect her to be any kind of a looker (or even an intelligent dinner companion), but because she’s the type who will need a nice dinner.

  5. JimEd

    It is truly soul crushing to be poor. It narrows your focus to a degree I’m not sure people understand. Even if you were poor a few years ago you/I don’t understand. When you are poor, the world is very very different.

    It has been many years since I was poor. I still remember it, but I am certain I don’t really understand what that was like then. Being poor changes you on a very fundamental level and makes a lot of normal talk irrelevant.

    If you have never been poor, you probably will never understand what that means. And so you must be careful about commenting or making statements/decisions about poor people.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s what women say. What minorities say. What gay people say. What transgender people say. What Muslims say. What the mentally ill say. What the deaf say. What parents say. What millennials say. What cops say. Nobody understand their plight but them, so no one should have any say about them but them.

      Should we be “careful”? We should always be careful about everyone, ourselves included.

    2. B. McLeod

      I was “poor” once as it is conceived in our country. That is to say, I was making below “poverty level” scale, and living on pretty basic food, with a clunky old car and no medical care except “student health,” and I had to rent a room, but a room was big enough for everything I had (except the car). No booze, no parties, no movies or entertainment. I weighed in around 155-165 lbs in those days, though I was very strong and quick. My sisters used to joke that I looked like a camp survivor. Still, apart from a bit of hypertension, those were probably my peak years, physically.

      In the larger world, though, none of that would be “poor.” Not like living in a garbage dump in Calcutta, or in any of the hundreds of places where people have to cook rats for food. I never had to cook a rat for food. I don’t think we actually have any people in our country who are “poor” as the world sees it. This stuff is all relative.

  6. Nemo

    As badly as I want to share my perspectives on poverty, I won’t. I will say that the only important thing to be “careful” about is the negative stereotypes associated with poverty, e.g. laziness, stupidity, criminality, and the rest.

    This isn’t because the stereotype is untrue, or that examples of those stereotypes are rare, but because when they are true, it is generally for reasons that are not moral or character flaws. Like welfare fraud, it happens, but the results are overblown. Plenty of studies about the impact of poverty on people’s psychology out there.

    Anyway, sitting in moral judgement of the poor is something to be careful about, not because it’s unfair, but because it makes the problem worse. I expect that any CDL worth her salt knows this to the core, from her view of how the legal system treats the poor.

    And now I have gone on longer than I intended. I went back to try to edit this down, but I couldn’t figure out cutting much. I’ll keep working at it though. Call it my New Year’s resolution. 2018, less is more.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is how one person takes a step off the path, and another takes another step farther away from the path. Is this post about stereotypical causes of poverty? Is this post judgmental about the poor? Yet, here we are.

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