Survival Mode

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

How does a lack of access to basic practical needs impact your ability to learn and dream about the future? That was the question we left off with last time. What is the answer?

In my experience it makes it very challenging and complicated. In El Canon, the small community in which I met Gladys of hot dog lunch fame, reaching the Fourth Grade is considered an accomplishment. Typically, by this time children have been enlisted in the search for survival. Think about it- if your child cannot eat, why would school take a higher priority? If you are hungry, how does obtaining an education solve this immediate need? The short answer is it does not. This, of course, just restarts the cycle of intergenerational extreme poverty.

The other issue is that learning becomes very difficult in survival mode. Specifically, a lack of basic nutrients starves the brain of what it needs to develop properly and learn. The need to constantly find a solution for the absence of basic needs leaves little patience, and/or ability to think critically and concentrate on future-focused opportunities such as an education or skills training. Again, why prepare for the future if you are not even sure it will exist?

This propensity to only consider immediate needs really changes the way a person interacts with society, as well as the society itself. Instead of considering how actions will impact society as a whole, a “survival of the fittest” attitude takes over. In my experience, this does not just affect the poorest of a society, but rather becomes the general viewpoint of many in the society. I could give example after example of this, but I will stick with Gladys.

Gladys, the hotdog collector, took more than her fair share of hot dogs. As an outsider this seems insensitive, and even greedy. However, if you put yourself in Gladys’ shoes, you can see how your perspective would change. If I do not take five or six hot dogs, someone else will. When “survival of the fittest” becomes the standard operating procedure in a community or society, the wellbeing of others becomes secondary because there is little choice. Sure, someone could be completely selfless, and many amazingly are, but that is rarely the default-mode of the human heart. Instead, we usually think, “I will consider my ‘neighbor’ once I know that I have enough to take care of myself and the ones I love. This is Gladys’ reality and it would be difficult to judge her for trying to stay alive.

Where does this lead? We will consider that next time.

– James Belt

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