Poor In the Head

February 4, 2013 § 10 Comments


I grew up in Enosburg, Vermont, which, as some of you may know, is far enough north that an Enosburgian might rightly enough consider someone from Cabot a flatlander. We lived in a two-room cabin: No running water, no electricity, no plumbing. The cabin sat a good quarter-mile or maybe more off the dirt road. This was before the Subaru era and, true to type, my folks drove a VW beetle. So in winter, we skied in. That’s how I learned to ski: Not as sport, but as transportation. I’m glad for it now, but I can’t say I was particularly grateful for it at the time.

My father wrote poetry and edited poetry anthologies and probably did some other odd jobs that don’t come to mind; for a while my mother milked cows on a farm up the road. I played in the dirt. There was very little money. We might have even been poor, although I certainly wasn’t making such distinctions at the time.

Then my father took a job down in Montpelier and we moved. This was beginning of my family’s ascent into the middle class, and when I say “middle class,” I mean the real middle class, not this bullshit idea that someone making a quarter million bucks a year is somehow middle class. At least not in Vermont, they ain’t.

Now there was a bit more money, although again, it wasn’t something I was thinking about or perhaps even aware of.

I mention all this not so much to tell my tale (although, if you’re at all interested, you can read more about this history in SAVED), but to briefly consider how my current relationship to money was forged by my childhood.

The truth is I am grateful for having grown up without a lot of money. This is not to say I did not grow up privileged, because of course I did. I grew up with the skin color of the majority race of my nation and I grew up speaking the majority language of my country. I was raised in a family that provided me the freedom to explore my boundaries. All of these things have likely provided opportunities for me that might not have been there for me otherwise. Indeed, in a strange way, I consider the fact that I did not grow up with much money to also be a sort of privilege; I suspect that such an upbringing impressed upon me that money is only one way of meeting my family’s needs.

A while back, when the so-called fiscal cliff was dominating the drivel that passes for news, I heard a segment on NPR in which they were interviewing folks of varying income levels, trying to determine what constitutes “middle class.” One of the interviewees, a pleasant sounding fellow from (if memory serves) California admitted to pulling down $450,000 annually. Did he think of himself as middle class, the interviewer asked? Why, most certainly, he said, and furthermore, he often felt as if he didn’t have nearly enough money, in large part because no matter where he looked, there were people with more. So much more. He chuckled as he said this, as if even he knew it was ridiculous. But still, he said it.

For a just a moment, I am ashamed to admit, I felt a flash of anger. 450 large per year and you want more? What a selfish, ungrateful asshat.

But then I realized something: This man wasn’t wealthy. Not even close. He was poor, and he was poor in the most self-destructive, tragic way possible. He was poor in his head. And once I realized that, I didn’t feel anger anymore. I felt sympathy.

§ 10 Responses to Poor In the Head

  • maggiemehaffey says:

    Hmm. thought provoking…You have coined a new phrase. Can’t wait to read SAVED.

  • sonrie says:

    I agree with your logic – I have family and friends who make very good incomes, yet due to their wants of big weddings, fancy jewelry, boats, or second homes, they do not live sustainably where if they lost their job, they would be ok. They would lose what they have accustomed to having.

  • Peter Burke says:

    There is a movie 1994 Disclosure with Michael Douglas. I have thought about this movie several times as I have read your series on Money. My favorite line in the Movie and it frequently echoes in my thoughts. The CFO of a Fortune 500 business asks Michael Douglas, “What do you get when a man makes 500 Million dollars?” Douglas at this point looks up the question as a knock knock joke for which he has no time to consider. the CFO answers for him, ” A frustrated Billionaire”. There is no limit to the desire for money. Thanks for giving a name. “Poor in the head” Cool.

  • ncfarmchick says:

    I like “asshat,” too! I heard this same interview on NPR and about fell out of my chair. I was almost embarrassed for him.
    Thanks for sharing this little bit about your upbringing. I agree you were/are far from poor. In fact, it sounds like an enviable childhood to me. Looking more and more forward to reading SAVED.

  • drandrearyan says:

    Hi Ben. I’ve been reading your blog weekly for a bit now. It makes me smile each time and even more so want to simplify some things. I wanted to nominate you for a Liebster Award for all that you do to inspire others and tell your story. You can check out the details here: http://relishthejourney.net/2013/02/07/honoured-once-again/

  • Doug W. says:

    Hey Ben, I often check in and read your stuff. Lots of food for thought and just as often i think I’ll write a comment, only to realize I am not sure where to begin. This one reminded me of the native American healer Thom Hartmann describes in THE LAST HOURS OF ANCIENT SUNLIGHT. in the Chapter The Secret of Enough. Hartmann contrasts an Atlanta lawyer and this native healer who lives in a community of poor people. His cash income is about 500 dollars and the dollar value of the services he receives was estimated to be about 5000 per year. If his house burned down, his community would help, If he needed clothes, same thing. Contrast this to the lawyer who would lose everything if he lost his job. At the end of the chapter, Hartmann writes:”As my native American mentor said of me, “Boy, you think you’re rich, but you’re poor beyond your imaginings.” Goes along nicely with being poor in the head.

    Somehow we have lost touch with that community, that sense of mutual assistance. That is this country’s history. Two generations ago small farmers still changed works. Before that there were house raisings, corn huskings,etc. Perhaps as the country has become more well off people haven’t needed to cooperate or respond to other’s needs. In any case, this is a topic that may need exploring, not only to realize what we have lost, but to start finding our way forward. As we slide down the back side of Hubbert’s Peak our way forward may be easier if we are more ready to help each other out along the way.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Thanks, Doug. Two books for you as you consider these issues: Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. And SAVED, by Ben Hewitt.

      • Doug W. says:

        Hi Ben – Am not familiar with the Eisentstein book, so thanks for the tip.
        Pre-ordered SAVED last month!

  • Angela says:

    fantastic. I can’t wait to read the book.


  • Bettye says:

    Body piercing has become a school of commerce today.
    Lastly, stainless steel jewelry is very durable especially when compared with gold and silver.
    Due to this, one of the best Valentine’s Day gifts that you can give to your love one is stainless steel jewelry.

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