The following is a continuation of my blog series based on my book The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America’s Pivotal Moment. If you are just now picking up on the series, you might start with the Introduction: Welcome to the Challenges of Change.
I hope that it will help you, as writing it has helped me, to find a candle to contribute to your light.
Whether you agree with me or not, I hope my work helps you clarify your own position, both within and to the chaotic times surrounding us. Above all, I hope it helps you create a new vision of the future and a new hope that draws you to commit to it.
Asheville, North Carolina
The Midnight Hour:
A Jungian Perspective on America’s Pivotal Moment
Chapter 7: Poor and Hopeless in the Land of Plenty
Writing this book has caused me to peel back the layers in my memory of other times of crises. I was thirty-two years old when my hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, was in deep shock. It was late 1969. The city was reeling… brutalized after the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The city was blanketed with rage and grief, scared and shaken to its foundations by the news and images of riots, burning cities, and antiwar protests. A silent scream arose from the downtown Tenth Street area where the bodies of drugged-out teenagers and hippies littered the streets like corpses. A dark cloud of disbelief, bitterness, and despair permeated the city’s atmosphere.
My blood ran cold as I, a young family man, watched the foundations of our world crumble. “Good God! What kind of future have I brought my children into?” I wondered. Driven by an ambition to give my family a good life and to make my mark in the world, I had, at a young age, become a senior executive in the famed department store, Rich’s. Rich’s was a premier business in the city of Atlanta and, after the federal and state governments, the largest employer in Georgia. Looking for an additional way to make a difference in our community, I discovered that Rich’s had a program that paid tuition for executives to continue their graduate education. Since I was already past the point in my career when an MBA would be of benefit, I enrolled in a new master’s program at Georgia State University in what was then termed “urban life.” This program was contemporary and focused on the problems our cities were facing; in addition, GSU was and is a large, dynamic city college in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
While attending night classes, I learned about the Central Presbyterian Church’s inner-city clinics. Located downtown, across from the state capitol building, the clinics centered around a baby clinic, which was treating almost 6,000 babies a year. The clinic included a pharmacy, a dental clinic, a family planning clinic, a pastoral counseling center, a drug treatment center, an afterschool childcare center, a surplus-food distribution program, and a cafeteria that was open daily. These clinics were supported financially by the church and with volunteers, with no active evangelizing allowed in them at all.
Galvanized by the spirit of what they were doing, I wanted to get to work helping my city face its problems. The motivating force behind these clinics was the kind of community spirit I wanted for my family. We joined that church, even though I had been out of organized religion for years, and I became a volunteer in the clinics for almost a decade. My first day as a volunteer-in-training was as a counselor in the methadone treatment center. When I walked through the door, it was as if a bullet had struck me. My heart stopped…and when it began to pound again, I felt like I had been flung into a scene from Dante’s Inferno. The patients were like ghosts. Young wraiths looking like they had just been released from a concentration camp. Guards stood with hands on their guns to keep anyone from trying to grab them. “Holy shit! Is this America?” I thought.
I had chosen to work in this clinic because I was full of rage and despair at the number of teenagers, mostly runaways and most of them from decent families, who were lying in drug-induced stupors on our downtown streets, being victimized by constant violence and unspeakable brutality. I saw a vision of hell that I had never dreamed was possible in this country, in my town. I eventually became the chairman of the clinics and served in several different areas. Meanwhile, my mainstream life was evolving as well. After a couple of years, I left Rich’s, and a partner and I started our own group of stores. Circumstances later took me back to graduate school in counseling psychology at Georgia State University. Georgia State was two blocks from the clinics where I continued to volunteer.
Clinic work took me straight into the heart of the housing projects in Atlanta, with its primarily black population, while delivering surplus food. This was my first face-to-face encounter with inner-city poverty. I had known rural poverty—black and white—growing up, but this inner-city experience was totally new to me, strange and scary. As a boy in grammar school, my family had lived in the country outside of Atlanta. While we were not poor, many of the people around us were. In my fifth-grade classroom, at least 20 percent of the students were in their teens, just sitting at their desks, as required by law, doing nothing but waiting to turn sixteen so they could drop out of school and go to work. Needless to say, with so many frustrated older kids around, there was plenty of bullying directed toward us younger kids. This was the year I learned to live with my inner alarm system on, all the time. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I was carrying a switchblade for self-defense. Fortunately, because I was big for my age, I never had to use it.
But years later, the first time I stepped into a building in the housing projects, I felt I had been dropped into a well so deep that everything was unsure, paralyzing, and frightening—different from the poverty that I had known. Quickly, I began to understand how Robert F. Kennedy’s exposure to poor people in Bedford-Stuyvesant and their desperate sadness caused him to question the truths he had taken for granted, softened him, opened his heart, and began the true maturation of his character. His character became, as I hope mine has, one that wasn’t bound by the silly, defensive definitions of progressive, liberal, or conservative, but one that was strong and compassionate.
So much of what I encountered in every apartment, in every courtyard, was heart-wrenching. Once I became known in the area—it took months—I found that many of the people were warm, especially the older folks who often had a wry sense of humor in spite of their conditions. However, even though I got to know them well, it didn’t mean I really understood them. I hadn’t walked in their shoes. But when we drove our van into the area, I could sense the feelings of impotence and anger bubbling beneath the surface, and aggression was always close to the boiling point in the young men. All too often, the victims of their angst were each other.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that these young men and women, stuck in their societal impotence, would turn in dark directions out of these frustrations. I wasn’t surprised to see them turn to drugs to escape. Nor was I surprised to see them take the dark path by joining a gang to gain a sense of dignity, identity, meaning and purpose.
Violence feeds on feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and blindness to the possibilities of a better life in the future. This is not to say that many of these people did not work. They did, but in low-paying, grinding jobs that had no dignity in the eyes of our materialistic society. People in the more affluent bubble seem to have a hard time imagining you can work hard—two or three jobs—work harder than you ever believed possible and still sink deeper into the abyss of debt, poverty, hopelessness, homelessness, and rage. The inhabitants of this world focus on daily survival, not on building a better life.
After almost a decade of volunteer work with the clinics I had to leave, due to illness in my family. But the desperate sense of sadness I had felt in it seared my heart and left it with a silent cry and bitter tears tucked in a deep corner. Holy Mother of God! We should have been doing better than this a long time ago. And any s.o.b. who thinks these people are just lazy, indolent, and milking the system while living off the rest of us should try walking in their shoes for a few months.
* * * *
As I look back and mentally travel my road again, more truth emerges from those times in my life. Certain truths, which because of its pain and the blur of how overwhelming my life had become due to my wife’s illness, got pushed into my unconscious—my shadow. That shadow became a lockbox for my anger and despair. Memories from that era in my life are stuck in the recesses of my mind like snapshots in an old photo album that my soul won’t let me discard. Sometimes they just pop into my vision like someone had just pressed the button on a PowerPoint presentation. At this moment, I’ll share one just to give you a flavor of what I can’t forget.
I see myself in a room with twelve master’s-level students in counseling whom I am supervising during their practicum. I am a doctoral student and they are all working in inner-city facilities close to mine. A thirty-two-year-old African American woman is presenting a case she is trying to handle. It is that of a thirteen-year-old girl who had been raped in the tenements and had become pregnant. (God only knows how the baby was delivered.) The police had been called when she was caught stealing milk from a convenience store to feed her baby. The police went back with her to get her baby at the abandoned building where she was living. As the student presented this case, tears rolled down her cheeks. The brave little girl my student was trying to help was doing all she could to try to take care of her baby, whom she had diapered with newspapers. This snapshot still haunts me over four decades later because I know the society that I am a so-called responsible member of has done far too little about these darkest expressions of our irresponsibility and lack of seriousness.
This tiny African American girl loved her baby dearly and knew it loved her. By this time, in the classroom, tears were in all our eyes. We knew the system and we knew this little girl and her baby would be torn apart. The student counselor was doing all she could to get good placements for them. We knew their lives could not continue in any safe sense in an abandoned building, and yet they were going to lose the only love either one of them had ever known. What could I say as the supervisor to teach or heal or whatever in this situation? Once again, once again, in this wasteland of a world, I felt my helplessness. And I felt rage and shame at the pain our culture is blind to…at the lack of compassion in a rich society that squanders so much of its humanity in useless, wasteful ways. Why is it so hard for us to see the deep pain, suffering, rage, and hopelessness right down the street from us?
* * * *
When I left this inner-city work, I felt as if I and my fellow workers were like the little Dutch boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Silver Skates.” You may remember the little Dutch boy from your childhood. He saw water seeping through a small hole in a dike that was holding back the sea in an isolated part of town. He stuck his finger in the hole to stop the flow because if it had continued, the hole would have grown larger from the force of the water until the dike would have burst and destroyed the town. He stayed there bravely throughout the freezing night, hoping for help. Finally, in the morning, the grown-ups awakened, found him, and rescued the town. We were like him, except most of the grown-ups are still having trouble waking up, even now, forty years later. Poverty still affects one in seven of all Americans. An amazing number of our children are hungry, sick, and unable to focus in school. Plus, for over three decades economic inequality has expanded to the point where the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor is now considered to be the most destructive social problem we are facing.
* * * *
Take it from someone who has known our world rather well. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is exactly right. If we don’t really know consciously and with full awareness who we are and what we are doing, we are going to end up doing evil in spite of our best intentions. Fast-forward forty-plus years. We know more today than we did when I was working in the inner city. What we now know has validated many of the intuitions and answered some of the questions I had about how, after sometimes only a generation, the poor are trapped in their circumstances, and why, without knowing it, they continue to self-destruct through violence and addictions, failing to come to grips with their lives in a helpful, hopeful way. Of course, this reality says something about the indifference of the rest of us as well.
J. D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy tells how his mother, who had overcome obstacles to become a trained nurse, failed to make it out of the entangled clutches of the culture of the Appalachian poor she grew up in. Her life was a howl of hope and pain. Every time she seemed to break free, she fell back into the swamp of addictions, destructive relationships, and conflicts that sucked her down once again. Similar things happen to poor people everywhere, whether they are in Appalachia or the inner city or any other area where they are consistently living in impoverished surroundings.
Over forty years ago, I realized that it didn’t take a psychoanalyst or a scientist to see that there was a mindset or a mental template of some kind that developed in the majority of people living in impoverished surroundings, especially in the second and third generations. Studies in neuroscience today point out that kids growing up in poverty have smaller brains than normal and that this results in a decreased ability to make good judgments and a low capacity for ethical processing. Impoverished children have a loss of brain tissue in areas that support making decisions, solving problems, controlling emotional behavior, following instructions, and paying attention. We have also learned, however, that the brain has neuroplasticity—the capacity to modify its own structure—and that we never completely outgrow this wonderful potential. That is why, with the proper training while in the Marine Corps, J. D. Vance was able to turn his own “learned helplessness” into “learned willfulness.”
Learned Helplessness—What Really Scares Me
Learned helplessness in poverty circumstances is a state in which people have been indoctrinated into the belief that the choices they make have little or no effect on improving their lives and that they have no control over their circumstances. These mindsets are not attitudes that can be easily changed at will or by having an insightful moment. They are patterned into one’s brain. Changing these patterns requires a structured learning program like the one J. D. Vance encountered in the Marine Corps, where he was retrained and taught, in his words, “learned willfulness.”
It looks to me like the black poor, white poor, city poor, country poor, Appalachian poor, and other poor people share a similar mindset of learned helplessness, especially after more than one generation of poverty. These people find it almost impossible to genuinely imagine having a better life or, if they can, how to get there. They cannot really see themselves in a life that would provide a reasonable degree of safety, a good steady job, and a step up into the middle class. To move up to a better lifestyle is to move into a new community and a new social group which has a set of norms, values, perceptions, and activities the poor know as little about as people born into affluence know about what it is really like to be poor.
And here is another point. Moving up can even increase someone’s anger and bitterness. Just imagine what it might be like to move into a world where the complexities of banking, tax forms, traversing the insurance markets, effectively buying a house and car, interviewing for a job, and many other things are confusing, belittling, and enraging. It would be like being dropped into another country, where all the known customs, laws, and coping skills no longer work.
While in a certain sense we have some helpful programs targeting poor people, they are generally not aimed at giving them a genuine, realistic hand-up. J. D. Vance was fortunate: he is very intelligent, had a helpful grandmother, and found a hand to help him up in the Marines. We also face another problem because we have such an adverse political attitude toward taxes for people who can afford to pay them that we parse out assistance to the poor based on income levels. This bias causes many problems, such as poor mothers having to choose between paid work, childcare, and sometimes medical care or food. It also slams people on the income borderlines who are slipping backward and members of the middle class who are sinking for the third time.
Here is what really scares me. We are creating a daily-growing group living in semi-poverty. They serve in restaurants, care for the very young and the elderly, work in distribution centers and stores as salesclerks and stockers, and so on. Plenty of them are educated yet seem stuck. The server in one of our favorite restaurants has a degree in architecture. The middle-aged fellow who cheerfully greets me almost daily in Starbucks is a former high school teacher with a master’s degree. He moved here to care for ailing parents and can’t find a teaching job. Think about this reality. Could this soon be one of your children, or your grandchildren, or your spouse or partner, or you? How fast are we creating, on an even larger scale, the circumstances J. D. Vance grew up in? These people are human beings just like us who have needs and fears and want to have hopes and dreams for themselves and their families. Can those of us who resent paying taxes learn that we help ourselves when we help others recognize and fulfill their sacred potentials?
Americans have the resources and the knowledge to do better than we are; as we fail to give a hand to people struggling in the above situations, they become angry or apathetic voters because they feel excluded from being valued by the rest of us and assume, rightfully so, that our government has no interest in their well-being. The answer to these problems is modest, in that it involves common sense, and is challenging, in that implementing common sense isn’t as easy as you might think. Of course, we must stop kicking people while they are down, which means stop underpaying people for the work they do. We must also respect their dignity — these people are adding value to our country by working. Then the solutions I’m suggesting in the next chapter are not radical. They are simply common sense.
The above is Chapter 7 of my book The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America’s Current Pivotal Moment.
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