Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Just don't make it look too good?

I've been thinking about those posts and comments about perceptions of people who receive public assistance. While I'm uncertain whether the government (yours or mine) should be in that business at all, I think the point is worth discussing. If we've never been in a position of needing public or private financial assistance, do we hang on to certain stereotypes about those who do--for instance, how "grateful" they should be, or how they should or shouldn't dress? And how uncomfortable does it make us when those ideas are challenged?

Ironically, this same attitude has been common towards pastors' families and missionaries. Wasn't it Edith Schaeffer who said that her mother's fantastic sewing and alteration skills drew criticism that their family dressed too well for missionaries? It's always been a fine line for a pastor to choose a can't be too nice, or his parishioners will somehow think he's mis-spending their money. But it's okay for the same church members to buy good cars, right? After all, they earned it...

It can be annoying if those we feel entitled to feel a bit superior to decide to step out of the roles we assign them. I had a brief encounter with this last winter at a rummage sale, held at a church that was part of the Out of the Cold overnight shelter program. Because the gym was full of men, the rummage sale was set up in a hallway outside. As I checked out the books and sweaters, I noticed that one of the Out of the Cold guests had also come out to look through the sale stuff. This man seemed to be getting a few cautious and perhaps slightly hairy eyeballs from the rummage sale ladies, and I guess he was aware of that too, because he commented loudly, "Is this sale for everybody or just for regular people?"

On another note: you know the real reason the stepsisters ripped Cinderella's dress was that it looked better than theirs did, even though she made it out of their scraps. The risk of beautifying or refurbishing something unwanted is that somebody might try to take it from you. Like that guy I can't remember the name of who created the rooftop oasis...or another person Mary Pride once wrote about who bought and cleaned up a polluted, unwanted piece of land, and was then told that he couldn't use it because it was now a protected wetland. (I can't verify that one either, so if it's an urban legend, I apologize for bringing it up.)

Moral of the story: maybe that if you're fixing up a donated beater car, you'd better not fix it too shiny.

And obviously I've gotten away from the point, if there ever was one here. Something like: don't try and fit people too tightly into what you've already decided they should be? Not everything (or everyone) fits into the holes we carve out.

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