I grew up in a lower-class neighborhood in a lower-class town, a suburb of Los Angeles. It was a gang-infested area where graffitti was ubiquitous. Whites may have been a slight majority when I was little, but by the time I reached junior high school they had begun to flee the area, and I had become a minority. (I am white.)
My parents got married when my mom was 17, ostensibly because she was pregnant with my eldest sister. But my mom told me that she purposely got pregnant in order to get out of her parents’ house, because her dad was molesting (though not raping) her sexually.
My parents separated when I was around 5, and their divorce was final by the time I was 7. Within a couple of years, my mom’s new boyfriend started staying at our house on weekends. I found out years later that he was married at the time, and cheating on his then-wife. Eventually he divorced his wife and married my mom, and moved in full-time.
My three elder sisters all ran away from home during what should have been their high school years, and two of them had babies out of wedlock during that time, which they gave up for adoption.
Both my mom and my stepdad worked full-time, so we were unsupervised after school and throughout the summer. I started smoking marijuana during the summer between 8th and 9th grade (at age 14). A friend of mine had stolen it from his dad and invited me to try it with him. I loved it, and for the next several years I smoked pot pretty much as often as I could get it. My mom and stepdad didn’t seem to notice. In any event they never mentioned it.
My dad was an alcoholic and also liked to smoke marijuana on occasion. I moved out of my mom’s house and into my dad’s when I was around 19, and he and I would get high together. I didn’t drink with him because I didn’t want to spur a drinking bout in which he would miss a week or two of work and not be able to pay the rent. About 25 years later, he committed suicide with an overdose of pills.
I previously posted about my conversion to Catholicism via Mormonism, but in a nutshell, when I was in high school my mom started going to evening Mass on her way home from work. She dropped in one day out of curiosity. She hadn’t been to Mass in years and from all she heard in the media and elsewhere, she expected the church to be empty (this was the early ’80s). But to her surprise, Mass was underway and there were actually people in attendance on a weekday evening.
I began to notice a change in her around this time, and eventually she started talking about her newly rediscovered faith. Of course, faith was foreign to me at this point. I had been raised for all intents and purposes as an atheist, only going to Mass once or twice a year if I happened to be visiting my grandparents. But, making a long story short, after a gradual conversion process spanning about 5 years, I was eventually received back into the Church (I was baptized as a baby and so technically was already Catholic).
I am now married with two grown children in college. My sons have never been in any but the most trivial kinds of trouble. Both were valedictorians of their high school graduating classes. My younger son earned a full tuition and room-and-board scholarship to a large state university, and was named Outstanding Freshman in its Computer Science department this year. I have been married for 22 years and people have said that we are one of the happiest married couples they know.
All this was brought to mind by this article on NationalReview.com. I agree with the article. I think poverty is self-perpetuating and generally is a matter of culture, not race, as evidenced by the fact that black kids raised in middle-class neighborhoods do fine; whereas white kids raised in poverty tend to stay poor.
Which is why, when I look back on my life, and the culture in which I was raised, I can’t understand why I didn’t turn out poor. I’m not well-off. I work in a clerical job that just pays our bills. We live in a modest three-bedroom house and have two cars: the “good” car is 11 years old and the “spare” one is 15 years old. But we’re financially stable, and conspicuously absent from our lives are habitual drunkenness and drug use, premarital sex and pregnancy, violence, sexual molestation, truancy and adultery. We’re not rich, but we’re happy.
I can only attribute it to the faith, putting it in basic terms, showing us the way to what’s right and wrong, good and bad; what virtues and vices are, the cardinal virtues and the cardinal sins. That you must do good and avoid evil: It’s not just a good idea but is mandatory, your eternal destiny may depend on it.
But what’s good for your eternal destiny is also good for your life on earth: When you avoid adultery and divorce but are faithful to your wife, you have a happy marriage. When you avoid the deadly sin of sloth and work diligently, your income is stable. When you avoid drunkenness and mind-altering drugs, you see things more clearly and act more rationally. And all of this is a good example to your kids, who are then trained to do the same, and the cycle of poverty and divorce and out-of-wedlock births is broken. (I’m speaking here of the obvious cause-and-effect relations between standards and behavior, and behavior and outcomes. But obviously I never would have changed my heart and thus my behavior and attitudes, absent God’s grace.)
My eldest sister “reverted” to the faith as well. She is single and happy, makes a very good living and lives in a beautiful California coastal town.
Of the two sisters who never did revert, one of them engaged in one unhappy romantic relationship after another, including habitual fornication. She had a baby out of wedlock and raised it as a single mom, until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer (due, I suspect, to chronic smoking and use of birth control pills) and died at the age of 35. Her daughter now has two children out of wedlock.
The other sister has been married several times. After giving up her first baby for adoption, she had another, which she kept and raised as a single mom. Her son is now in his 20s and recently had a baby out of wedlock himself, with a woman whom he has no plans to marry. His mother (my sister) has a history of stealing and addiction to prescription drugs. One boyfriend and husband after another broke off with her upon finding that she had run up his credit cards behind his back, and similar behaviors. One of her several husbands committed suicide.
We all come from the same family background. What is the difference between us? In the case of my eldest sister and I, it seems that our faith compensated for what we lacked in terms of the culture in which we were raised.
There but for the grace of God …