Standing on my tip-toes, my eyebrows lower as I squint looking out my bedroom window.
“Petty had a rough life growing up living in poverty in Gainesville, Florida.”
I tossed those words around my head, having just heard them only moments ago. Even though I was just a young child, I still felt like I had a firm understanding of what “rough life” and “poverty" and poverty meant.
At least, I had felt like I did.
My current state of confusion could only be relieved by accepting that I did, indeed know the definition of “poverty.”
As I stared next door at the house that late music legend Tom Petty had grown up in, for the first time in my life the realization began to sink in…
I was poor…
People chuckle at this story and tell me, “You didn’t know you were poor growing up?” In truth, no, I didn’t know it and frankly, I never recall ever feeling impoverished. Sure, looking back I can think of evidence that would support that indeed I was not born into a life of wealth.
At the time, my Dad was a graduate student at the University of Florida, and my mom was an administrative assistant in the school’s anthropology department.
Sure, the only car we had, that was sporadically operational, was a Datsun coupe that lacked seatbelts because our dog had chewed them up. Additionally, one of my good friends growing up was the son of an affluent Gainesville attorney, so clearly, I could tell the difference in the number of television sets and lack of in-ground swimming pool between our homes.
However, the truth is I never felt like I was a “Have-Not.”
In looking back, there are probably several reasons that contributed to the fact that not only did I not feel impoverished, I actually felt very privileged.
As I am typing this, I am using a computer monitor that is as a large as the only television we had in the house. Yet, that didn’t particularly bother me because my parents gave me a “television allowance” growing-up. I had to ration my TV viewing to ensure I never missed an episode of He-Man.
The result was that the bulk of my time was spent outdoors using my imagination among friends. How could anyone be poor, when they had a tree that was a pirate ship, or a bush-fort that guarded the perimeter of the home from Skeletor’s evil henchmen?
Moreover, I grew-up in the shadow of the University of Florida, back before the Gators had ever won any sort of championship and the football stadium wasn’t even nicked named “The Swamp.”
The absence of athletic success meant that the university lacked the limelight luster that it and other major universities now have. So in the off-season, access to the football field was readily available, and that's where we played neighborhood football.
It was no big deal to roam the 1970’s and 80’s era buildings and be able to see people like future NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith playing arcade games at the university’s student union.
Lastly, I grew up in a very culturally and racially diverse segment of poverty. In fact, it wasn’t until around second grade when I heard someone call my friend Paul an ethnic slur because he looked “Jewish,” unlike I did, that I realized that people could dislike others based simply on the classification that was assumed to distinguish people from each other.
Now, either it was a product of how I grew up or it was an inherent aspect of who I am, but to this day I’ve never had a fondness of money. In fact, for a large part, I don’t like it and consider it the chains and shackles of all human enslavement.
Years later as I reflect on growing up poor and the current world we live in, I wonder, if it isn’t impossible now for the children to grow not knowing they are among the “Have-Not’s."
Has the modern world not consumed the innocence of wealth that exists beyond the confines of money? Rather, is our entire sense of worth in life, not bound by what is tangible or artificial, and not what we are inherently born with?
“Do you like me? Check Yes or No.” A young lady looks at the handwritten note on her desk, then chuckles and says, “Just text me.”
If a youth growing up today cannot afford a smartphone, this forces them to live in an existence that feels excommunicated from the rest of society at large. The interconnectivity of informal communication through text messages and social media has become an extension of a person’s entire being. For anyone born into a life, in which simply sustainability is a struggle to maintain; what many people consider to be necessitated articles are actually unobtainable luxuries.
Think about that for a moment...
Currently, smartphones are so costly that most if not all cell phone carriers don’t even sell cell-phones out-right. Instead, even we “Haves” are required to pay monthly or finance them. All so we can exist in and amongst the rest of society and not feel like we live in exile.
Kid’s who grow up “Have Not’s” today; do not have the same privileges that I had as a kid. Rather, as the latest funny meme or video goes around the “Have-Not’s” are reduced to hoping someone might let them see it.
Smartphones are merely just one of many examples in which the disparity between the “Have-Not’s” and “Have’s” have become barefaced and voyeuristic displays of what it means to “live” or “Not-live” in society today.
This past summer I sat on the metal bench on my front porch, tears welling up in my eyes. This particular evening was day-one of a two-week vacation from work.
In light of the fact I was trying to resist my body’s natural response to extreme emotion, a tear still escaped. Silently, the in cut through the humid evening air and tumbled to the screen of the iPhone I was holding in my hand. Displayed on the phone’s screen was the overview of my bank account, easily accessible thanks to the convenience of the bank's app.
My daughter, Adley was almost a year old, however, the story that iPhone screen told was the realization that the cost of my wife being out of work for almost three months without pay, after our daughter was born, had finally risen to fruition.
Ultimately, as a result of some medical complications during her birth, some of the time off was inevitable, and frankly, I was glad my wife was still alive. Less than a year prior, on September 29, 2016, a dear family friend had not been so lucky, when she died during childbirth.
Fundamentally, the wealth of life should have been more than enough. However, in the moment the sad sinking feeling was that I could not afford to take our five-and-three-year old sons to the zoo.
Had it not been for the unsolicited donation from a very close friend of mine, John, my kids would not have been able to experience the zoo during summer break. Something, I had previously promised them.
My tears that evening was not actually over the fact that I couldn’t take my kids to the zoo. Truthfully, my boys would have easily forgiven me. I love and like my kids, so in exchange, we still would have done something less financially costly, yet equally fun.
No… My depression that summer evening was the realization that, sure I had a smartphone. Sure, I now had two cars with seatbelts. However, I still was indeed a “Have Not.”
Probably, the most confounding complexity of the revelation that evening was not from being enveloped in self-pity. Rather, it was the realization that my situation is by no means unique. In fact, my situation is actually the norm.
The reality is the majority of us all… truly are “Have Not’s.”
I’ve been told my whole life by people, “You’re smart enough that you could be a millionaire if you wanted too.” Maybe, these people are right. Maybe they’re wrong. However, my lifelong lack in the admiration for money has always led me down paths to never seek it out. So much so that I’ve been incapable of funding the nonprofit I started, simply because I’m so ineffective at asking for money, that I can’t even generate enough funds to pay someone to professionally handle the job.
It’s not that I am oblivious to what money provides for those in society. Rather, it is that the wealth I seek is the kind of wealth that John earned that summer evening when he ensured my kids went to the zoo. It is the wealth in knowing that you can do something, no matter how small or large, that makes someone else feel like they are not a “Have-Not.”
In fact, one of the greatest virtues I ever taught myself in life was to de-value money. When I had some little bit of extra spending money, I would spend it on something for someone else. In doing this, money became only as valuable as the experience I could give to others and in itself, it contained no inherent worth.
Maybe there is some truth in what people have told me about my ability to make myself rich. The same mathematical models used in the financial engineering field of Wall Street markets are the same methods in which I’ve spent a decade quantifying human behavior for research. However, when my parents gave me $1,500 as a graduation gift, I didn’t invest it in stocks or bonds. Instead, I gave it to two teenage kids who were set up offering to wash people’s windshields to earn cash.
Unfortunately, understanding the virtue of charity and living in the modern world exists in a conundrum in which these two things do not often coincide. This was the reality that I felt like a hollowed shot to my heart as I stared at my bank account just recently one summer night.
That cruel reality is that we live in a system in which we are all “Have Not’s.”
Now, I understand that the majority of people who consider themselves right now to be “Haves” may be experiencing some degree of sympathy over my willingness to be open and honest about my personal experience of feeling like a failure as a father to my kids… don’t.
You indeed are most likely a “Have Not” you just don’t even realize it…
The truth of the world today is that very few of us are “Have’s” and the most of us are “Have Not’s.” The ultimate trick is that we all exist in various degrees of “Have Not” and we don’t all feel it the same.
We may not admit it; however, we all know we are “Have Nots.” This is why anything that seems like it might take from us makes us anxious. We fear that others will take from us and in run cause us to have less.
This tedious tight-rope of experiencing the smothering effects of living as a “Have Not” coupled with the fear that others are going to take from us, is the bedrock of all bias, prejudice, suspicion, and disdain that we have for each other. If you do not feel that others are going to take from you, then why would you have any reason to hate them?
In reality, it is this fear of losing something that is the fuel for all hate and prejudice.
When Neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia and chanted “Jews will not rule us," what did they really mean when they said this?
The motivation behind their chant was an irrational fear that we Jews were taking something from them. The reality? Well, I’m Jewish and not only do I not want to take anything from anyone. I actually don’t have anything to show that would suggest I ever have.
This is the hallmark of racism as well. It is rooted in the perception that African Americans or people of color are going to take from us or that we are suddenly going to lose out if equality is universally true. These fears can cause us to be implicitly overly defensive and admonish others out of fear they are going to deceive us in order to take from us.
At the end of the day, I look back to my childhood and looking out the window that day. I have to ask, is this system necessary? Or is it one of perception we have all created it?
What changed from the moment I looked out the window to the moment we are today? In our anxiety of not becoming a “Have-Not” are we keeping others and ourselves from actually having anything?
Because, at the end of the day, as a child growing up poor like Tom Petty, I never once have considered myself to be impoverished. Even today, I may live paycheck to paycheck, and I may not have a huge house or fancy cars. However, I still consider myself to be very wealthy in the things that matter in life.
Now, you might be able to afford to take your kids to the zoo, however, do you consider your children's smiles to be as valuable as mine did in the photos I sent to my friend John?
Because the wealth we truly gain is the freedom in which we give to others.
One day, that finite clock of life that ticks within us all will come to a stop. On that day, you will not see a moving truck or armored bank car traveling behind your hearse. On that day, will you look back and consider that you really experienced the wealth of life? Because, if not, on that day, it might just be too late.