We get a lot of messages in our culture about bootstraps and “making it on our own” and “being independent”.
“I never accepted handouts from anyone!”
I don’t see that as necessarily laudable. Here’s the thing. While striving to do the best you can is a good idea, the fact of the matter is that no one, not anyone, anywhere, gets to where they need or want to be without at least some support along the way. Whether it is simply being allowed in the door, or getting a job, or having enough resources to get an education or even accepting a tax credit…
I’ve been poor and I know a lot of poor families. And one of the biggest lessons of the co-op has been how much people want to help. Our produce co-op started with 30 families ordering. Our last big donation effort helped 30 families, something like six of them at the last minute. Every single week we send out multiple gifted produce boxes. I don’t want to call them charity, because while they are definitely given to people in need, they are not given in a way that isolates and separates people in need.
With our holiday boxes, often the very people getting a box will also be making something to put in them. Someone like me with more money than energy might buy a bunch of pumpkin for someone with more energy than money to make into pies for people who have neither the time nor the infrastructure to do so. One dinner was entirely cooked because the family was in a hotel.
It’s May, why am I talking about this now?
I’ve been thinking about privilege a lot, about helping and charity. I’ve also been playing a hell of a lot of Skyrim. For those who don’t know, Skyrim is a single-player video game where you basically go into a fantasy world and have adventures and work your way up from a prisoner in chains to someone who can pretty much slay anything that walks, flies or breathes, and a whole lot of things that don’t. Dragons? No problem. Like many such games, the concept of “leveling up” is there, you do things, you get experience. You do more things, you get more experience. You get enough skill points and boom, you are healthier or have more stamina or more magic to use.
Skyrim is also a game that allows people to change the game world, quite literally, with things called mods. Mods can do as little as adding an apple to a counter in an inn, to changing the entire experience of the game. Because I have old eyes and an atypical monitor-to-eye distance, I modded my game to make certain hard to see resources glow so that I notice them more easily. I also loaded a funny hideout that is basically like a medieval TARDIS. It has doors to all the possible “regular” houses available to the player within the game. And a trap door to the outside. It is huge, and it means you can basically walk across the continent by going into your basement and turning a corner.
But while that’s cool and useful for getting one places quicker than would otherwise be possible… the relevant part is that this hideout has within it a cavern. And in that cavern are a bunch of traps which can actually kill you at early levels… and about 100,000 gold. In game terms, that’s ten levels worth of college education. There’s also a pile of ingots, which can be used to make things, and the act of making things helps one level. I can get out of the initial starting condition of the game and immediately teleport to the front door of my hideout, walk into it, and the next time I see sky I’m level ten and my archery has gone from 20 to 70. This is huge in terms of boosting my ability to kill things… and killing things is part of how one gathers the resources to make things, and making things is part of how one makes money. Oh, and lest I forget, the hideout is filled with staff who basically only exist to train me. Private tutors.
It is almost exactly like having a rich but judgmental parent who pays for your college and gets you a car and then invests in your startup while introducing you to influential people. Playing without it, one may see one’s first dragon at level 3 or 4. One may get one’s ass kicked numerous times and survive only because the guards are better shots. Playing with it, dragons never have to be difficult unless you actually mod them to be more difficult, and you don’t fight your first dragon until you decide to, maybe around level 40 or so.
It’s a dandy model for privilege, the difference between having to beg, borrow and steal and join the thieves guild, and simply walking through the game at your own pace for the adventure of it. And that’s in a world that even without the mod, is LITERALLY designed around your character.
So what does that have to do with charity?
Like my character, I’ve played it both ways. Welfare, Medicaid, Section 8, WIC, basically the works, struggling to get by as a poor working mom, and then this year when for the first time we didn’t qualify for a child tax credit. Not EIC, the other one. Because we made too much money. (I wish it felt like it was that much money, apparently as your income goes up, so do the expenses, but scary big expensive things aren’t life destroying anymore, so that is an improvement.) So when I hear about someone struggling, I KNOW. I do. Either I’ve been right where they are, or I had enough family and community that it wasn’t quite that bad… and regardless, I want to make it not so bad for them.
I know I’m not alone in that. I give what I give to help others… but I also do it because it makes me happy to help. I get a real, tangible benefit from putting people in touch with what they need. Struggling with chronic pain, there’s a whole lot I want to be doing that I can’t, but by god if I know who can help and can put them in touch with someone who needs help, that makes me happy. It makes me feel useful. And I especially love doing that within the context of our local community.
We have a natural drive to want to fix things. I know I’m not the only one because hey, co-op… 30 boxes and all I did was make a Costco run… Someone says they couldn’t afford groceries when they got to the check out stand and I ACHE to have been there behind them because I could have helped. I can’t carry my own damn groceries to the car, but my god, if I could ease that burden for a young family…
On a non-monetary scale, I feel much the same about teenagers I hear about who have been alienated (thrown out) from their homes of origin because of who they are. I hear about a transgender teen being kicked out and I want to scoop them up and tell them that it is going to be okay. Gay kid kicked out for being gay? Honey, there is NOTHING wrong with you. NO THING. It isn’t your fault. Teenager kicked out for getting pregnant? If I could add a “bubble” of a new bedroom to my house for kids to stay in when they needed a place to land that accepted them for who they were, my house would be very oddly shaped indeed.
Being able to put someone in touch with resources, or get them quality food that isn’t just society’s leftovers, or just say to them, “You are not the problem. Society is fucked up, but YOU are not what is messing it up and don’t you believe anyone who ever tells you otherwise.” Those things are the things that feed my soul. They’re what remind me why I’m still here.
Most people aren’t “The Dragonborn.” Most people don’t have a rich uncle or wealthy parents footing the bill for whatever they decide they want to be. Most people fumble through until they find their way, bumble around bumping into things until things either go too wrong to fix or fall into place in a way that meets current needs and then they find a new normal.
Hell, the first three or four runthroughs I did on Skyrim? Things got so buggy and screwed up due to innate flaws in the game that I just quit the game and started a new one. The one I’m still playing? I installed user-made patches that basically FIX THE UNIVERSE so that it doesn’t crash. I *rewrote the world* in order to succeed and succeed quickly without inconvenient programming errors bogging me down.
It doesn’t work that way in life. We have to patch it on the fly. In Skyrim, sometimes it’s not player error, it’s that the underlying game is so buggy. Sometimes it’s that the computer just isn’t compatible. In life, that’s true too. I view racism and bias as an operating system failure. The deep inequities in American culture? Hardware flaws.
And as long as society pretends they aren’t there, they’re never gonna get fixed. We can’t shut down the game and rewrite the code and start over, so we have to figure out how to make our changes while everything is still moving. We have to figure out how to “wake up” the people who are operating under erroneous programming. How to fix the system that so often fails everyone in the guise of “helping”.
Things are changing. I actually have a lot of hope because a lot of things that were swept under the rug for most of my life are now BEING TALKED ABOUT. We are having a conversation about the operating system. About the hardware. About the code. And it can’t get fixed unless we look at it.
Meanwhile, back in our little corner of the world, if you get stuck and need a hand, and someone like me offers you one… know that it’s because a) we’ve been there, b) we know the operating system is buggy and c) it’s a small thing we can do to help fix the code. Reduce a little of your stress. Might not be your rich uncle, but at least you can feed your kids something good and know that it’s because we care.
I was having a bad day a while back, and a friend knew about it, and she also knew that I absolute love her homemade ketchup… and she sent a jar of it home with my produce box from the co-op. That jar of ketchup? Unasked for? A gift? I joked that it was the “ketchup of love” (and now we know why tomatoes are ‘love apples’)… but in truth every time I got it out of the fridge and used it I smiled and knew someone wanted my day to be a little better, a little brighter, and that actually made it all better. WEEKS of joy, from ketchup. And that friend is now thinking about starting a ketchup business. As well she should.
It’s not charity. Making sure that families feel supported and plugging the holes in the safety net benefits EVERYONE. I have local family and people who live with me and near me who help me out on nearly a daily basis, when I need it. And they know I’d do everything I can for them, too. The more people who feel that sense of security, the better off we are. The less violent the world is. The less broken the code. Sometimes life is so hard that you don’t know how you are going to take the next breath or get through the next hour. Knowing there’s someone near who’s got your back? It makes the breath that much easier to take. If someone puts out a hand to catch you, it’s okay to take it, and steady yourself with their help.