Earl Shorris speaks of "the surround" of life experienced by persons who live in low-income families, communities and realities (see Riches for the Poor: The Clement Course in the Humanities). In "the surround" of poverty, people scratch and struggle and fight to survive in ways that the majority of the non-poor population cannot begin to understand. In such a social and personal context, space for calm thought comes at a premium and is exceptional, if it comes at all.
People in "the surround" of poverty spend most of their energy, effort and strength managing the chaos that fills their lives.
Not long ago, I sat in a circle of a dozen men. The group was part of a workforce training program designed to train and employ under-skilled, unemployed, ex-incarcerated men. As part of the Monday morning "wake up" exercise, the leader asked each person share what kind of weekend they had enjoyed.
Going around the circle, we heard how things had been since Friday. As I listened, a couple of things struck me.
First, every man who spoke told us what they had had to eat over the weekend. Some went into great detail in describing how well or how poorly they had eaten. Clearly, this was a group of men who had known hunger and want. Their appreciation for a good meal pressed me hard, as I realized how thoughtless I am about how freely I eat and how I seldom miss a meal.
Second, a few of the men described really traumatic situations that they had been in or near over their weekend. One told of gang type fights he had observed and escaped as quickly as possible. Another man after telling us of his meal, reported that his brother had been shot and seriously wounded. He feared that his brother might be paralyzed due to the injury. After sharing this troubling news, he pivoted quickly to talk about a football game he had enjoyed watching. The juxtaposition of delight and agony and his ability to slide from one side of life to the other made me think of Shorris's notion of life in an unmanageable "surround" thrust on people by poverty.
Working among, living near and loving "the poor" calls for new wisdom that must involve a new commitment to listening carefully, speaking less and displaying an honest, unknowing humility.