Up until the day that Oliver came into our home, we had never had an immediate family member on state medical insurance, WIC or any other form of government assistance. Therefore, I'd never had the experience of standing in front of a receptionist's counter, balancing a baby on my hip, keeping a watchful eye on two children curled up in chairs with books and directing an over-zealous five year-old while digging in my purse. O.k.--I actually have had similar experiences ... but none with the same outcome. See, nowadays, when I go rustling through my too-big bag, I usually come up with what is obviously a medical coupon instead of an insurance card. And the difference is huge. When people spot that tell-tale slip of paper, I have to tell you: the way they look at you changes.
In an instant, my children go from being cute little moppets to being poor waifs. I noticed this trend the first time Oliver had an doctor's appointment. A new woman--not the usual receptionist--was at the front desk. When we came to the front of the line, she commented on my numerous and beautiful children, then asked who I was checking in. I told her Oliver's name. The woman smiled at him broadly, then turned to find his file. I produced the coupon I'd been told was his proof of insurance and set it on the counter for her to deal with. That's what I do with our insurance card, so I figured it worked the same way. The minute she saw it, her smile faded. She proceeded to fill in the new patient chart for me, as if I couldn't possibly understand the intricacies of this complicated form. At the pharmacy, I dealt with the same thing. The pharmacist who filled Oliver's prescription counseled me on the the meds as if I were an idiot being entrusted with the king's jewels. The people in line behind me avoided making eye contact with me, as if my seeming poverty was contagious somehow.
We won't even talk about how the huffy teenager at the Fred Meyer register rolls her eyes when she sees me separating out the WIC items in my cart and placing the check on top. Or how fellow shoppers put their hands on their hips and stare when I remind the cashier to ring up the items on their own bill.
Suffice it to say, I do not appreciate being treated this way. But this form of prejudice has taught me a lot in the past few months. First, who I am is most definitely not defined by how I pay for services. While I have never been a person that has invested overly in others' perception of me, I recognize that I have always taken a bit of pride in being a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" kind of girl. No matter how hard things have been for us financially in the past, we have never relied on government support. In hindsight, I think that may not have always been the wisest choice but there's nothing I can do about that ten years down the road, can I? Anyhow, that pride in my own ingenuity that I was talking about is deeply ingrained. And being seen as someone who is struggling (which is, by assumption, what it is to be a client of any social service) is far more hurtful to me than just about anything else. Believe it or not. This is my own problem, and it's one I am laying at the Lord's feet.
The bigger, over-arching and unspoken lesson here has been that there are thousands of people right now being treated the same way. And while many are simply caring for a grandchild they didn't expect to be raising, or are fostering a child because they feel it is God's call, many more very well may be struggling to stay afloat in the stream of life. But how much worse is it to hand over a med coupon and be greeted with near revulsion when you are already consumed with a feeling of failure? How demeaning to be treated as uneducated and inadequate when you already down?
The reason for my post is not to preach, but simply this: if you happen to be in line behind someone paying for their purchases with a WIC check or EBT this week, can you do me a favor? Smile at them. Give them a real, genuine smile that says, "You are a human being." If you see a mom fingering a tattered medical coupon as she waits with a feverish toddler in a waiting room, can you say hello? Can you validate them as individuals for a mere second? You never know where these people are coming from, and you never know where they've been. But if for one moment you have made any discomfort that they've felt somehow more bearable, I believe you have handed over that cold glass of water that speaks of your love of Christ.