Doug Herbek: Poverty And Personal Choices


Doug Herbek, 13-14, San Miguel Schools Chicago, Back of the Yards Campus, Chicago, IL

At Lasallian Volunteers (LVs) Orientation, just before we began our service as LVs, LV staff provided us with a great training which led us to question our assumptions about ourselves, each other and the world in which we live.  I vividly remember one session where the facilitator asked us to talk about our views on social justice.

During that session, as the facilitator made differing statements about various topics, each time he made one of these statements, he asked us to get into one of the four corners of the room, the first if we strongly agreed with the statement, the second if we agreed with the statement, the third if we disagreed with the statement, and the fourth if we strongly disagreed with the statement.

At one point, the presenter said, “The majority of people living in poverty are poor because of bad personal choices.”  All of the LVs in the room were on the side of the room to indicate that they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement.  Indeed, with around 50 of us LVs in the room, I wasn’t sure that all of us could fit into one quarter of the room, so I’m not sure whether or not everyone strongly disagreed with the statement, or whether some of us strongly disagreed with it and others just disagreed with it.

After we had been discussing this statement for a little while, I raised my hand and noted that nearly all of the people, if not everyone, in the room had chosen at some point, whether in the past, present or continuing into the future, to be financially poor.  Of course, the vast majority of us in the room were LVs.  Aside from the LVs in the room, LV staff were also in the room.  Most LV staff members used to be LVs themselves, and thus used to live on the modest stipend LVs receive.

I further noted that plenty of people (which would include monks, nuns, priests, social justice activists, pro bono lawyers, and Peace Corps volunteers, among many others) would view that voluntary decision to be monetarily poor as a good personal choice.  I wanted to be sure that not everyone in the room was looking at financial poverty as a bad thing!  I found it appropriate to point out that many find it laudable to be purposefully financially poor by reminding everyone in the room that probably all of them chose financial poverty at some point in their lives.  Granted, I am fully aware that the vast majority of impoverished people in the world are not monetarily poor by choice.  Nevertheless, I wanted to illustrate that the question could be viewed from a different perspective.

Soon thereafter, again trying to look at the question from a different perspective, I asked the session facilitator if he had intended for the statement to apply to financial poverty.  He indicated that one did not necessarily have to interpret the statement as dealing with poverty in a monetary sense.  As soon as he had said that, I began moving my way through the crowd which had gathered on the one side of the room.  I walked over to the other side of the room, where I now stood alone.  I explained that if the statement is taken as applying to spiritual poverty, then I strongly disagreed with it.  All of us, every last one of us, who is spiritually poor is in that condition because we have made poor personal choices.  (And I quickly point out that many of us, including myself, are spiritually poor.  We are trying to crawl out of the darkness which comes along with the bad choices we have made; we are trying to return to The Light, which is from God above.)

We all have free will.  All of us know the difference between right and wrong.  Each of us has a conscience.  It is only us who do spiritual damage to ourselves.  Others might be able to physically injure us or financially harm us.  How we choose to respond to events in our lives determines our spiritual state of health.  As Jesus noted, nothing from outside us can hurt us.  As He also explained, it is what is within us which hurts us; the poor personal choices we make are what hurt us, since ultimately we can only be responsible for our own choices.  We cannot be responsible for what is done to us, but we can, and indeed are, whether we like it or not, responsible for how we respond to events in our lives.

Since we are responsible for the choices we make, we are also more specifically responsible for how we respond to others in need.  And when we help others who need our assistance, we not only help them, but we also create spiritual wealth for ourselves.

What kind of wealth do we want to amass?  At what expense?  When we accumulate spiritual wealth, often we put assisting others over earning money for ourselves.  Do we help others, perhaps at the expense of our bank account?  Do we help our own bank account, perhaps at the expense of our souls?  As Jesus noted, where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Do we help someone else in need, or do we pass by that person?  The LV program was founded to provide volunteering opportunities for helping disadvantaged youths, clearly a decision to help those in need.  By helping others in need, and in doing so rather than pursuing material wealth, one redefines wealth.  True wealth, wealth that will last for eternity, is spiritual wealth.

We can only be responsible for our own choices, including the ones we make about the types of wealth we accumulate.  Thus our choices truly define us; they determine our eternal destiny.  Make yours reflect the best values you can.

Doug Herbek, 13-14, San Miguel Schools Chicago, Back of the Yards Campus, Chicago, IL

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