THE ART OF BEING POOR.
AN amusing discussion has been going on in the West- - minter Gazette about " Life on 285 per Annum." Can a single woman, brought up in the cultivated class, live a civilised and happy life on less than two pounds a week ? The actual question affects a small number of persons, but it suggests some larger issues. It is wretched to be really poor, if by poverty we mean want. But quite apart from all questions of hardship, of hunger, or cold, or constant fear of destitution, it is not pleasant to be much poorer than our neighbours. Yet there are those who support this comparative evil with positive grace, even though they have a family dependent upon them. They have acquired the art of being poor, and it ie an acquire- ment which presupposes many qualities and much study.
Of course there are a few people belonging to the cultivated classes who like being poor. Art has nothing to do with the matter. They are, so to speak, poor by nature. They would not stretch out their hands to get a fortune. They do not care for the good things which money brings. They feel more free without them. They are bothered by possessions, fettered by luxury. Con- ventional well-to-do existence seems to them as a sort of cage out of which one can only get through the mediation of dependents. They give orders with a secret effort, and receive deference with a secret shame. The network of laws which support a graded society, and the outlines of which, blurred by English common-sense, seldom obtrude themselves upon the notice of the ordinary Englishman, disfigure for them the landscape of life. They long to get out of sight of them, and in that moderate degree of poverty which imposes simplicity and precludes anxiety they are always most at their ease. Those, however, whom nature designed to be rich, whom fate placed among the well-to-do, and sheer necessity alone forces to study how best to be poor are not as these. They do not follow an inclination ; they accomplish a task. Some power of self-suppression is necessary to them, and some power to suppress others is at least convenient.
As we look around us among our acquaintance we shall all admit that we know a good many people who have been very much embittered by comparative poverty, while many others on the same income are very happy. It is impossible not sometimes to feel that the troubles of the first are, at least, in a measure of their own making. It is not true that they made at the very outset an initial mistake. They decided to look upon themselves as poor rich-people instead of taking an entirely opposite point of view and considering themselves rich poor-people. They drew a false line between luxury and necessity, and consequently they have no luxuries at all. They forget that the only really rich man is the man who has something to spare, and the only really poor man is the one who has nothing over. It is almost impossible but that a poor man who regulates his standard of life by that of his richer neighbours should feel some envy. It is rely bard to see some one else doing so easily and so well that which we with so much struggle are doing so badly. Consequently one great source of pleasure is shut to these poor rich-people,- i.e., pleasure in other people's pleasure. The light, delicious atmosphere of success which they might breathe among their friends is tainted for them by jealousy, and the perpetual sense of an unfair handicap. The man, on the other hand, whom we may call the rich poor-man can stay with his most opulent friend and be perfectly happy. He lives at home as be lives abroad—after different fashions—at his ease. No doubt it takes some courage to disregard the conventional ways of life and determine to be unlike one's neighbours. It means the greatest of all the evidences of self-control, the power to break with habit. It means the rarest of all social qualities, social independence. It means, to be quite candid, the power to exact, on other scores than money, that regard and politeness which, cloak the fact as we will, money brings mechanically under our present social system. Certain advantages of birth and upbringing are no doubt in these particulars substitutes for money, and those who have them smile at the hesitation of less fortunate people who fear to give up these intangible concomitants of a particular way of living. We are all apt to smile at discomforts which can by no possibility be ours, and to see them, especially when ,they are connected with grade or caste, through a "satiric medium," whereby sympathy is effectually sterilised.
But though men and women who find themselves suddenly poor, or who awake in middle life to the fact that an income which used to increase year by year has reached its highest point and is beginning to go down, have many hard lessons to learn, they try, if they are destined to become proficient, not to take the situation too seriously. It is not by determined renunciation, but by determined enjoyment, that the art of being poor is brought to perfection. They consider how best to dispose their energy for enjoyment so as to bring an outlet for it within their means. They seek diligently for the kernel of happiness within the husk of pleasure, and, as a rule, they find the kernel is the cheaper part. After all, how many of the delights which money alone used to buy can now be had for next to nothing. Books are within the reach of all. Such libraries as millionaires could not buy offer the treasures of their knowledge for nothing. Of course one does not need to be learned in order to make the best of being poor, but hardly any one is happy nowadays without books. Those who regard reading merely as a pastime need never be in want of the newest novel. The finest treasures of art are open to the sight of all. Any one who desires can hear music; any one can see plays. As to the pleasures of social intercourse, they reduce themselves, when our earliest youth is over, to the pleasures of conversation, and to get all the pleasure out of talk that can be got is certainly .a great part of the art of being poor, and it is the easiest part to cultivate. The soul of all outdoor sports is to be found in the love of Nature and the love of exercise, and both these delights are within the grasp of comparatively poor people. It is one of the strangest things in life how few people have settled in their own minds what it is they really want, or who will take the trouble to be happy. "I have often thought how much I should like to do so-and-so," we hear people say, and nine times out of ten it is something they could very easily have done, only they always put it off. Where the cultivated poor feel the pinch of poverty, and where no art avails them anything, is in the matter of health. The really poor man can have the most complicated, dangerous, and longest of operations performed at a hospital as well as it could be performed upon Royalty in a palace. The poor gentleman is in a very different position. "But doctors are so kind," we hear some one say. No doubt that is true ; but to accept kindness is not always easy, and to ask it is seldom possible. Paying wards and systems of insurance will mitigate the evil in the end, but at present it is a crying one.
Given health, almost all the sources of happiness enjoyed by the wealthy man are now within the grasp of his cousin on a small professional income, only the poor man must make rather more effort to lay hold on them. If he wants to be socially popular, he must allow himself fewer lapses into grumpiness, and must make a greater effort not to be bored or opinionated. He must expect to be judged on his merits alone, and sought for nothing but his company. He must brace himself to go in search of those opportunities of enjoy- ment which the rich man finds at his hand. What is perhaps hardest of all, he must be content to let his children have only the essentials of a good education, without the con- ventional stamp. Nothing is so dear as conventionalism. Learning is cheap and play is not expensive, but public schools are prohibitive for a poor man with several sons. All departures from the usual are attended with increased con- sciousness of risk ; but luckily these departures, when prompted by necessity, appear to be more often attended by good results than those undertaken for the sake of experiment. The comparatively poor man will never be able to forget that nothing is to be bad for nothing ; but as we watch the careers of those who have succeeded in the art we have been con- sidering, we shall perforce admit that out of their extra trouble springs an extra vitalisation, an extra capacity for happiness.