strange fires

Learning That "Blessed Are The Poor"

by Robert Coles

For many years, working as a pediatrician and child psychiatrist with boys and girls from well-to-do homes who were in emotional difficulty, I kept noting the irony that these young people could have so much in the way of possessions or opportunities yet still be worried or sad or confused or petulant. Sometimes I heard complaints that so-and-so had even more possessions or that a particular wish, if not whim, hadn't been appeased. Why is it, I wondered, that children who have just about everything the world has to offer get upset at the slightest provocation?

Then I started my studies of vulnerable children - children who had little or nothing in the way of possessions, children who were physically handicapped, or who struggled against the burdens of poverty and racism. Some of the boys and girls amazed me by their stoic endurance, their capacity to make do under obviously adverse circumstances. But I was even more impressed by something else I noticed in such boys and girls - their kindness toward friends and family members, their courtesy toward me, and not least, a quality my wife, a schoolteacher, called "moral strength."

She first used the phrase in New Orleans during the 1960's, as we worked with poor and quite vulnerable black children who were going through the considerable stress of school desegregation. These 6-year olds were heckled and threatened as they came to school. They were guarded by Federal marshals and attended schools boycotted by the children of white families. One of these children, Ruby, was the only student in one classroom, and for a while she was in constant jeopardy because mobs prowled the streets near her school. Nevertheless, she smiled bravely as she walked past those mobs and, I eventually learned, even said prayers for the men and women menacing her!

How does one comprehend such a child's psychology - her inclination to forgive her tormentors, her turning to prayer as a source of personal strength? For years I've met children like her and asked that question. Often I try to answer it with the explanations my own profession might offer: She was afraid but couldn't face her fear, we doctors might say, or she was angry but dared not express her anger - even acknowledge it to herself - lest she get extremely upset and begin to fall apart, or she was fighting off a depression and found praying a useful "defense."

Not that such interpretations are necessarily inaccurate or a blemish upon a particular child's dignity and courage. Without question, Ruby and others who have her kind of quiet courage, her kind of considerate response to those who are unfriendly or mean-spirited, most certainly have been trying to survive psychiatrically - and can be understood in that way. Still, we are entitled to judge the various ways people achieve such "survival." After all, Anna Freud once put it to some fellow child psychoanalysts "we can explain anyone's behavior through psychological interpretation, but only certain people master their conflicts in such a way that they end up being good and admirable people!"

I have never forgotten that moment - hearing her candidly bring moral matters into a scientific discussion. Nor have I forgotten her answer to a question one of us asked: whether she had any notion about what kind of people, from what personal or social or familial backgrounds, are likely to turn out decent and impressively sensitive or thoughtful as against those who become callous, self-centered, stingy and uncaring toward others. "I cannot say, " she said rather quickly, and then amplified with these comment: "Some children we have seen - and their parents, too - have been through hell itself (she was referring to the concentration camp survivors she'd been studying), and they seem so good and gentle even so, and others we have worked with had every advantage the world can offer, and yet they seem not only troubled but without any moral resources. They seem, almost, to be victims of the very comfortable and successful life they can take for granted!"

Needless to say, she had no desire to recommend suffering at the hands of racist mobs or in concentration camps as necessary antidotes to egoism or moral indifference, nor was she unaware of the fact that persecution and joblessness and chronic hunger can exact their toll on the young and old alike, can push people into a desperately craven struggle, waged at all costs, for mere physical survival. Nevertheless, she had lived long enough, and searched her mind and heart deeply enough, to encounter an important irony, even a paradox - that adversity can be compatible, at the very least, with a morally honorable life, whereas on more occasions than it is comfortable for many of us to consider, those who seem to have everything (money and power, and yes, lots of academic degrees) are not necessarily exemplars of virtue and might well be the distinct moral inferiors of the child Ruby and others like her.

I have studied children not only in the South of the 1960's, with its civil rights struggles, but in other parts of this country, and abroad too. I will never forget the hardships I have seen some people endure. In the squalid urban slums, or favelas, of Rio De Janeiro, for example, I have heard astonishing comments from people who seem as unlucky as it is possible to be. A girl of 10 there told me, time and again, that she can't expect much of a future for herself, but she is willing to wait for God's decision about her longer life. Here is her explanation of such prospects for herself and others she knows:

When Jesus came here, He lived poor, and He said if you don't then you'll have trouble, because you'll no longer be thinking of what God wants, but only of yourself, and all you've got. Maybe some people will get to Heaven, if they hold on and try to be good, the way He was, even if it's not easy. That's what we should do, wait until we're sent up, and He'll decide if we're good, or if we're bad, and you don't carry your money with you on that trip! It's you and your life.

 No matter how unpromising her social, economic and educational future, this girl possessed an energetic, even compelling, moral life. She wondered constantly about the rights and wrongs of this world. She paid close attention to what she heard in church and Sunday School. What she was putting into her own words, in effect, was Christ's teaching that "the last shall be first and the first shall be last." Often, as I heard her gain a bit of comfort from that, I felt uneasy, even indignant. This child deserved better of this life - in the name of the very fairness and justice both the Old and the New Testaments surely espouse. But I began to realize that in her own fashion the girl was a more subtle and knowing biblical moralist and exegete than I. She had connected her own vulnerability and poverty and suffering to Christ's; she had seized upon His words with an appreciative directness that was enabled not by educational achievement but by everyday circumstances of her life.

After 25 years of work with children and their parents all over the world, I have given up thinking that wealth and power and material comforts can be correlated with virtue, moral conduct, or even with a sense of personal satisfaction about life. What seems to matter, one begins to notice, is what a particular family chooses to do, morally, with its particular fate. A rather well-to-do man whose son I had interviewed over the years was as taken with the Biblical injunction quoted above as the Brazilian girl and her parents were. The boy was constantly reminded that "all the possessions in the world won't impress the Lord" by a father who wondered long and hard how he ought to live, what he ought to do on behalf of others. The result of such reflection was a constantly evident moral life: many acts of personal consideration on the part of the father as well as his public philanthropic gestures, all of which the boy could witness or keep in mind as he did his own moral growing. The result, I eventually realized, was a remarkable family - full of concerns for others and free (almost miraculously) of the insistent self-centeredness and material preoccupations all too many of us find inescapable.

Moral fitness means a responsiveness to the various ethical obligation presented to us every single day of this life. Sometimes, as I work among the privileged, affluent ones of this world, I realize how distracted some of us get - so much to buy, to own, to enjoy. No wonder we forget the meaning of that old saying, "Nothing worthwhile comes easy." Morally, too, those words may hold the requirement that we either take on the tough and demanding task of doing right, of doing good, day after day, or we lose not only the interest in doing so but the capacity. "I don't want my children swallowed up by creature comforts, " the affluent father mentioned earlier said to me once. Then he added: "I want them alert to the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have done unto you.' And I tell them, it'll take as much exercise as they get  playing sports, and maybe more, especially for them, for us, because we can just end up sitting by that pool over there all day long and thinking of nothing but the tan we're getting!"

One tries hard not to forget such a lesson - keep it in mind for oneself, and for one's children.  

Robert Coles is a Pulitzer Prize winning child psychiatrist at Harvard University and author of the "Children In Crisis" series. This article was first published in the Family Weekly, August 11, 1985


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