But for the Grace of God, Go I

Love is the absence of judgement.

It really is.

But in reality, how hard is it to refrain from judgement?

Even when we love someone, we still judge them against our own standards.  Our own sense of normal.  Our own life.

We’ve done it ourselves.  Judged.  Scoffed.  Distanced ourselves from the choices people make and the lives they lead.   Felt glad that it was happening to them rather than us.  Passed (well-intentioned) insensitive, thoughtless comments.  Offered advice without even contemplating what life feels like for them.  Without knowing all of the details.  Assuming our way, our advice, was helpful in some small way.  Believing we could do it better.  It would never happen to us.

I think the religious phrase is ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’.

Only when we stand on the other side of the fence, wearing the shoes of those we judge, do we really understand the concept of fate and fortune.  Both can give and take without notice.

I used to believe fortune favoured the brave.  But I don’t believe that anymore.  There are millions of good people who suffer awful, undeserving fates, and there are millions of bad people, who fly high on good fortunate, without even a backward glance or an ounce of humility.

It is true, the less you have the more you have to give.  The more compassionate you become.  The less judgemental you become.  Because you know what it feels like to worry, fight and struggle.  You appreciate how close we all hover precariously over difficult times.

Last month, for the first time in our adult life, we reached the final £19 in our bank account.   It was a depressing reality.  For two people, who have sailed comfortably across many stormy seas, this was a new and very unnerving anomaly.  We had reached the bottom of our penny jar.  There was no more.  It had happened to us.  Almost two years to the day after the plug was pulled on my husband’s career, we stood with nothing but our love, pride, and determination (and a bucketful of memories).

Overcome with worry, wondering how we would look after our children, I numbly walked to the central library to return some books and reflect.  On my way out of the library, I was greeted by a homeless man selling the Big Issue.  He cheerily wished me a good day.  The irony.

I walked on for a few yards and then returned.  I opened my purse to reveal the last few coins and I gave them to him.  I felt closer to him at that moment than any of the hundreds of people rushing by in designer boots and plush coats.

I wondered why when I had so much more, did I rush by just like them.  Only when we were literally scraping the barrel to make ends meet, did the plight of others glow so brightly right in front of our eyes.

On Christmas day 2016, we decided to give, rather than receive, for the first time in our lives – yet it was the year we had the least to give.  When we had nothing left but coppers, we could see when someone needed them more.   When we reached the point of food coupons, we could see the value of food banks.  When we opened our eyes to poverty, we could see the selfishness of wealth.

Why does good fortune have such a blinding effect?

Only when we are poorly do we appreciate feeling well.  Only when we suffer a string of bad days, do we appreciate the good days.  Only when someone lets us down, do we appreciate the true value of friendship.  Only when we no longer have them, do we appreciate family.  Only when we have to compromise, do we treasure luxuries.  Only when our bones are cold, do we appreciate warmth.  Only when we stare death in the face do we value life.  Only when we are placed in danger do we cherish safety. Only when we are hungry do we appreciate food.  Only when we have nothing, do we relish money.

I can honestly say, during our high earning days we rarely wanted for anything, yet we seldom gave either, not in a such a way as to inconvenience ourselves.  Of course, we donated to Comic Relief and Children in Need but it was always a sum we were prepared to lose.  We never missed it.  We empathised as we watched children starve but were not prepared to starve ourselves to give more.  I suppose value is subjective?  If a millionaire donates £2000 to charity, does that hold the same worth as the homeless man who gives his last pound?  Whose sacrifice is greatest?

I look back on our lives in the cottage, when we were sailing on the crest of a wave, with a mixture of feelings.  I am proud of our careers and the work we did to support many vulnerable victims across our county, however, I realise now, that with the accumulation of needless luxuries, we became more conceited.  We convinced ourselves that we had worked hard for our lot and that others could easily achieve the same if they invested the same effort.  The more we gained for ourselves, the more precious and protective we were over our ‘success’ – or what we mistook for success.  We wrongly believed that we had a different mindset or were made of ‘stronger stuff’ than those who relied on benefits, for example.

It was so easy to judge.  To make assumptions.  Criticise.  Presume that everyone was a master of their own fate.  Deduce that hard work pays.  Effort is rewarded. You are what you settle for.  Poverty is a choice.

Comfortable living didn’t make us better people.  It made us ignorant people.

We had no idea how hard it was for people to improve their situation in this country.  The ladder is incredibly slippery at the bottom and for some reason, society conspires against those who try to climb, especially if they have been dealt a previously dodgy hand.

Not all situations in life are self-induced.  Sometimes, people are propelled into a situation through no fault of their own, through illness or an accident, a bitter divorce, abusive relationship, poor education, disability or because they simply didn’t have the same start/chance in life.  Some people live under the shade of a tree because a seed was once planted by another.

For us, on our return from Nicaragua, we found ourselves stuck in a quagmire of rejection.

We could not obtain a mortgage without a 35% deposit.  We were refused rental properties because we could not prove a regular income.  Chris could not find a job because of his conviction.  We became trapped in a hole.  Every time we tried to climb out, we were kicked back in.  No matter how hard we tried to improve our situation and help ourselves, there was always a rebuff.  Another rejection. Another kick.  It was not a matter of trying.  It was not a case of effort.  It was a distinct lack of opportunity that spiralled us into a depressing place of hopelessness.

As we drifted scarily closer to rock bottom, karma blessed us with the unexpected sale of our car in Nicaragua.  Due to convoluted legalities, we had lost all hope that it would ever sell.  It was the lifeline we needed.  The salvation that enabled us to buy and refurbish a 20-year old caravan – the only roof above our head we seemed capable of securing.   I can’t quite decide whether it was a genius move or a sad state of affairs.

The absurdity of the human rat race is that it punishes any rat who dares to abandon the race, or who fails to keep up, or who falls to the back of the pack.    Whilst real rats take care of their injured, sick or weaker rats, humans turn against their vulnerable counterparts.  They blame them and shun them, believing they hold up the race.  They are blind to the potential of manacled sprinters prepared to run the distance.  They prevent them from passing the start line, then holler at their incompetence.

So, like thousands of other human rats, we found ourselves excluded from the race, penniless, living in a caravan, with no option but to seek help.

We became benefit scroungers.  Bums.  Freeloaders. Sponging parasites.  Scavenging scum.  Trailer Trash.  Whatever you want to call us and thousands of others who are in receipt of help (These are not my words but phrases I have heard many times before).  If it’s a good enough tag for them, then it’s a good enough tag for us.

We are not special.  If benefit claimants are second rate citizens deserving of contempt, then we are worthy of disapproval too.    Most have a story not too dissimilar to ours.  Of the few we met, they were mostly good people who have fallen on hard times.

Sure, if you look for the liberty takers, the duplicitous rats, you’ll find them in all walks of life (if that is what you are looking for).  But for the most part, the recipients of state support just need a small hand up, not a handout.  It’s not easy money. It’s demeaning, horrible, and desperate.

If we had a £1 for every person who said, ‘you just need to get a job’, we would have enough money to put petrol in our car for a year.  If we had a further £1 for every application, or non-response, or rejection, we would not need to sit, dejected, degraded in a room of other ‘scroungers’ listening to some 16-year-old read out jobs because we can’t be trusted to read them for ourselves.

Get a job.  Any job.  Be a barman.  Labourer.  Driver.  We’ve heard it all.

We can’t be trying hard enough.  We’re too fussy.  We should stop trying to launch a business and just get a job.  It doesn’t matter about degrees, qualifications, and experience – self-importance does not put bread on the table.  Forget how hard we worked to rebuild our life twice before, settle for less.  Settle for anything.  Pride comes before a fall.

We’ve. Heard. It. All.

But let’s not forget one thing…

Shoes.

Unless I am mistaken, nobody has walked a day in our shoes.

Nobody knows how our shoes fit and feel.  How worn they are.  What story they tell.  How much life they have left.

It is a privilege to sit on a high horse but we are all capable of an ungracious dismount.  What happened to us could happen to anyone.  At any time.  Life can change direction in a blink of an eye.  Your fate can be changed by the actions of others, or by circumstances beyond your control in an instant.  So, be careful.  How you treat people on the way up will be remembered as you pass them on the way down. It’s easy to pass judgment or throw critical remarks based on your own experience, but it’s far harder to be simply present, helpful and supportive.

If I have learnt anything from this phase of our life together, it is the importance of compassion and kindness at a time when judgement is the easiest option.  It is to be gentle.  Consider people’s story.  Offer a hand.  Don’t kick someone who is trying.   Be humbled by tough times.  Appreciate how it changes you.  Embrace adversity. It can unveil great rewards.

Living on the breadline, thinking about every penny, has made us thoughtful, resourceful and grateful.  We have drawn positive values from a very difficult experience.  We are less wasteful.  More considered.  Less biased.  More tolerant.

Our blinkers have been removed.  We have been educated.  We can see both the deception of fortune and the truthfulness of fate.

To quote Oscar Wilde, ‘Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’.  Fine things are a great distraction from the honesty of simplicity.  Fine things force you to run faster and harder in a competitive race towards an elusive finishing line.  But, what is success?  How do you define it?  Is it reaching a personal goal?  Achieving a lifelong dream?  Living in a mansion with a new sports car? Living a happy, simple life?  Running as hard as you can? Being a kind human being?

‘Success’ can easily become a ‘sacrifice’ if you don’t stop to consider what it truly means to you.

For us, our stop in the black hole of bleakness helped us to answer this question.  It helped us to assess what is important.  To see the race for what it is.  To see the opportunity in adversity. To take advantage of chances.  To feel the pain in an ending.  To see the start of a new beginning.

It was extremely draining and very difficult to stay positive in the dark.   We were tired.  Exhausted from trying.  Bone weary.   Truthfully, the months succeeding our return from Nicaragua were amongst our most miserable in the 17 years we have been together.  There were weeks when we both sulked in a murky despair.

There were minutes when we regretted our decision to buy experiences rather than security.  We wondered how life would be if we had not plummeted out of the rat race.  Then, we listened to our children recount the most marvellous memories and we were reminded that we should never regret something that once brought us so much happiness.  In fact, we should yearn for those days again.

As strange as it sounds, the harsh reality of our return to the UK was just what we needed.   If we had easily picked up from where we left off, there would be no new beginning.  We would have simply settled for a continuation of our past.

Living in a caravan, working odd jobs and fighting to make ends meet, is actually closer to our true aspirations than the career-obsessed individuals we once were.  The roads we have travelled are a million miles apart.  Having made the journey, we are absolutely, without a shred of doubt, convinced that we are finally on the right highway.  We have changed as people.  Our lives have changed. Our values have changed.  The old way is no longer the right way.  The past is where it should be.

Before we left Nicaragua, we talked about avoiding the comfort and conformity of our old life.  And fate, as you might say, ensured we didn’t return to it, by making it almost impossible to pick up our old behaviours and customs.  Fate was disguised as fortune.  A painful end made way for a new beginning.

So, for now, life is picking up, in a very new direction.  Thanks to our wonderful friends in Nicaragua, Chris’s mum and the forethought of a lifetime friend, we have been blessed with the opportunity to start again.  We are back at the start line, unshackled, having filled the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run.   We have the space, time, and absence of pressure, to choose the direction in which we are headed.

Chris has a job.  Any job.  The kids are in school.  For now.  My business is due to launch soon.  We have a roof over our head.  Albeit tin.  ‘Ugly Betty’, our ramshackle caravan, is our home.  Our personal space.  An extension of our travels.  Our convenient transition.  Our caravan of courage.  A place we feel safe, happy and hopeful.  She is the first step to the rest of our lives together.  Our new future.  Our dreams and aspirations.  Our travels and adventures.

Could we have avoided the worry and stress of the past four months?  Possibly.  Do we wish we had? No.  This is simply a fresh chapter in our incredible story of change.

A story that looks nothing like our past.

For now,

Martine x

2 thoughts on “But for the Grace of God, Go I

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