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Many years back, I was at the checkout counter at Walmart when a woman in front of me paid with free coupons.
I was with a friend of mine at the time. She grimaced, rolled her eyes, and seemed angry. I squeezed her hands as if to say “Calm down. Don’t make a scene.”
This friend was someone I’d looked up to. She was smart, strong, willful, and also a decent human being. She was a former classmate of mine and she’d put herself through college by joining the military after she turned 18. Once she was done with her service, she came back and the Army paid for her to go to college.
“I’m dirt poor, Roopa,” she’d told me mere days after we first met. It was difficult for me to accept when she said that because when I saw her she was wearing a beautiful blue Calvin Klein dress, Steve Madden pumps, and a Chanel handbag. I knew she’d recently colored her hair and she drove a previously owned BMW. She also owned her three-bedroom, two-bath house. And along with going to college to get her masters, she worked full-time.
I wasn’t sure what part of her was poor. And I said that to her, flippantly.
She didn’t laugh back. She was quiet and pensive. Then she told me that her family was dirt poor growing up—so poor that she wore food grain sacks as clothing and shoes that were three sizes too large when she went to school. “My mom got the shoes for free at the thrift store,” she said. “It was either wear them or go without any shoes,” she said matter-of-factly.
Over the next few years, I learned more about her. How no one in her family had gone to college and how the cycle of poverty completely defined them. She told me of days when she went to school dirt-faced because they didn’t have enough water to take showers.
Even as someone who came from India and was used to seeing poverty everywhere, I was struck by my American friend’s story. Maybe that’s because the impression outside America is that it’s such a rich country and the only poor people are either Black or Brown. Knowing a white person could be this poor was shocking to me, and unexpected.
I then learned how my friend was determined to break the cycle of poverty and her way out was to join the military. She said it was the best decision she made. She worked hard. She traveled the world. And she made sure she could go to college and make something of herself.
And make something of herself she did.
But that day at the grocery store, as we saw this woman ahead of us—a bit overweight, with a kid on her hip, holding onto another kid with her right hand, and handing over food coupons to the cashier—my friend saw red. When I squeezed her hand to make her calm down, she did.
And the second we got outside, she burst.
“Oh, I hate women like her!” she exclaimed loudly.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she looked healthy; she looked fit. She is just like me. So, why is she taking coupons? She should go out and work. Isn’t she ashamed?”
“Why should she be?”
“Look at me! In all my years of complete and utter poverty, I never ever took freebies. I worked hard and hustled. But I never took a handout,” my friend said proudly.
I didn’t say anything. Not then, and never since. And not because I didn’t want to. But because I’d said what I wanted to say to her before and had never been able to get through to her.
My friend suffers from “If I can do it, so can everyone else” syndrome.
I see this all the time. Not just from this friend (who is incredible, and I applaud her for everything she’s accomplished in her life) but from so many others.
And it’s not even the “If I can, so can you” thought process, but the idea that “If I can, so should you.”
Because, you see, that’s not how it works.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean everyone else can or should.
Over time, I’ve realized that most people say this as a way to encourage others. But, often, it comes off as anything but encouraging. It’s more of an exhortation of one’s self-worth. It’s self-aggrandizing. It’s a pat on one’s own back.
When my friend says, “I came out of poverty, so should everyone else,” it doesn’t sound encouraging—it sounds like judgment.
What I’ve tried repeatedly, and repeatedly failed, to convey to this friend and others is that we are all different. How and what someone is able to accomplish against all odds is not, and cannot be, the same for everyone.
Some folks have support, and people encouraging them. Others, like my friend, are just strong—mentally and physically—and can literally will themselves out of whatever situation they’re in. And then others are lucky and find themselves at the right place at the right time, which allows them to succeed.
Just because one poor person willed themselves out of a certain situation doesn’t mean someone else who appears to be similar can do the same. Or should be expected to do the same.
As much as I’m in awe of this friend, I’m also old enough and have seen enough of life to know and empathize with women like the one who was standing in front of us at Walmart using her coupons. We are all different. And our strengths, our weaknesses, and our journeys are different.
This isn’t to say that I’ve never patted myself on the back for my own accomplishments. Heck, for the longest time I’d go on Elephant’s Facebook groups and post whenever I won the Ecosystem! So, believe me, I show off too. But with time and maturity, I’ve learned that it’s important to acknowledge every person’s journey and the truth of their life.
So, instead of saying “If I can do it, so can you,” let’s just say to ourselves, “I did it” and then let it be.