A while ago, some students from our horticultural program took a field trip to visit a large greenhouse in Canada. They spent the day touring the place with the greenhouse managers, discussing techniques and exchanging ideas with the professionals there. On the bus ride home, one of our instructors noticed that one of the students was crying. She was a young mother, an African-American woman, very poor, struggling to raise her kids on welfare. The instructor asked her what was wrong. Fighting off sobs, she said, “They listened to me. I had some good ideas, and they listened. It was the first time anyone treated me like I had something to say. It was the first time around white people that I felt like a human being.”
Those were her exact words: She finally felt like a human being. All her young life, that woman had been defined by the assumptions society had made about her and by the self-defeating assumptions she was making about herself. That’s the real evil of poverty: It diminishes you, it starves you of hope and vision, it forces you to define yourself in terms of what you cannot do or cannot have or cannot be. That insight lies close to the heart of why Manchester Bidwell works, but there is wisdom in it for us all, because once we accept the idea that poverty is, essentially, the acceptance of meager possibility, we can’t deny that all of us are in some fashion poor.
We all suffer some form of poverty—poverty of imagination, or courage, or vision, or will. We allow ourselves to be limited by our fears—fear of failure, fear of change, fear of being criticized or of looking like a fool. We convince ourselves we lack the resources, the education, or the talent to pursue extraordinary goals. We trust conventional wisdom more than our own intuitions, and we prize the narrow and partial aspects of success—money, power, prestige—more than the rich, whole, satisfyingly human success we imagine in our dreams. In the same fashion that poor folks are shaped and limited by the unforgiving world into which they were born, we all allow ourselves to be defined by the external circumstances of our lives, in terms of what lies beyond our reach, in terms of dreams that will never come true.
In the name of “common sense” or “being responsible,” we follow the path of least resistance, ignoring our true passions and potential and squandering the chance to live truly extraordinary lives.