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Why "having nothing" isn't all bad

Published November 02. 2013 11:34AM

Bloomberg Wire service ran a recent study which concluded children raised in poverty experience chronic stress in life that can have long-lasting effects.

When I read that, I thought there's another side to that coin: Sometimes childhood deprivation can have a positive effect. It can set us up to have a grateful heart for every single thing we have in life.

Another study a while back concluded a grateful heart is the number one indicator of a happy person. So there's the positive effect I was talking about.

From personal experience, I can say childhood poverty can give us a lifelong appreciation of every simple thing.

I'm not sure I have the right to say we were poor when I was a kid because I never knew it. It would probably be more accurate to say my family "did without."

We always had a roof over our head and we lived in a fairly decent part of town. My parents worked hard to turn an old house without a bathroom into a nice place to live, complete with a modern bathroom my dad built himself.

Also, unlike some poor families, we never starved. Far from it. Our family had delicious meals every night, thanks to a resourceful mother who could turn flour and eggs into many a great meal. We feasted on potato cakes, homemade soups and pasta served in every delicious way.

On an occasional Sunday, we had chicken, but not too often. Much of the time our meat was game my father hunted.

As a kid, I thought every family was like that.

I did have a few inklings that we didn't have as much as some families.

One day I will never forget is when I got sent home from Catholic school and told not to come back until I brought a quarter to pay for a book someone else damaged.

My mother went to see the nun to explain my father was an independent coal miner who wasn't able to work that month because the mine was flooded. We simply didn't have a quarter, she said.

In those days, there was no such thing as "Oh, let's help the truly needy." Instead, the nun threw me out of school in fourth grade.

I met some extraordinary nuns over the years and I am grateful for them. But they make good and bad in every vocation and I'm sure that fourth grade nun didn't fit the good category.

That was a traumatic end to my Catholic school education. But public school was great and I instantly liked my new teachers and my many new friends. So it's not as if I suffered from getting booted out of Catholic school.

The only other memory I have that gives a glimpse of my family's meager finances was when Santa couldn't come to our house.

Today, there are all sorts of agencies, churches and organizations that make sure families have the means to celebrate Christmas.

Back then, my parents probably didn't even tell anyone they couldn't afford toys for us. That generation learned to "make do" without whimpering.

What I learned back then is when you have little, the little you have means a lot.

That year the American Legion gave toys to every kid. I got a toy xylophone that was so precious to me that I played it every day for years. I'll never forget how much I loved it and how I taught myself to play music by reading the pamphlet that came with it.

By the time I was in junior high school, our family's circumstances had greatly improved. Honestly, I thought we had become "rich" because the soda man made a weekly delivery to our house and a family treat was going out Friday nights for pizza. We really lacked for nothing.

But here's the important part of what I'm telling you.

One of the greatest gifts I have been given in life was that impoverished childhood. What it gave me was a lifelong keen appreciation for every single thing that comes my way.

Once, after I finished speaking to a large group, a gentleman raised his hand to ask what, besides my family, made me most grateful.

That was easy to answer. I told him it was "having nothing, or next to nothing" as a child. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

I once interviewed a successful doctor who told me the same thing. "My wife and I both had nothing. Working together during all those many tough years created a lasting strong bond between us," he said.

He went so far as to say a life of affluence was dangerous, claiming those who have too much aren't easily satisfied.

But that's another story.

Every now and then I get together with friends and we share stories about how rich we were growing up.

We talk about a strong family bond and frequent family get-togethers where the love is so real you can feel it and bask in it.

My friend Linda Lou grew up in what she calls hillbilly country in Appalachia where her large extended family got together every night to make music together.

Linda says she had the happiest family in the country.

Were they rich?

You bet.

They had the kind of richness money can't buy.

It just goes to show that sometimes "having nothing" can mean having everything you need.

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