People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. People who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.

Quoted in John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th edition, ed.

I read those lines for the first time five years ago and feel in love with them. But after meeting Olivia (name has been changed), I’m not so sure I still love them. Our circumstance do not have the finial say on who we are, but I can’t help but wonder how much our circumstances have power over us. Sometimes we are innocent victims of our circumstances.

I’d guess that Olivia is 28 years old. I meet her as we were walking along state street on night. It was dark and cold. We were pulling clothes, blankets, gloves, hats, and a 5 gallon jug of hot chocolate in our wagon. Every Monday our group walks this section of town talking to those who live on the street handing out hygiene kits, food, clothes, basically anything that we can fit in our wagon that might be of value to those living on the streets. One time we pulled a jug of hot water and a case of Cup-O-Noodles.

Olivia has a daughter who is turning 8 in February, she’s not living with her on the streets, and Olivia tells us that she plans and cleaning up and showing up at home for her daughter’s birthday. When we offered her some hot chocolate and a blanket and gloves and a hat, she said she’d only take a few things so that she could leave the rest for others who needed it more since she lucky enough to have a good paying job. It wasn’t until later in the conversation that she told us that her good paying job was selling sex. Not only does she get paid for her work, but it gives her a free place to sleep for the night. She told us about the one night that she slept on the streets and she swears that what gave her MRSA. She works to be able to find a place each night to sleep so she doesn’t have to sleep on the street again.

As we talked to her I kept thinking about her 7 year old daughter. What would her daughter think and feel when her mom shows up on her birthday after being absent for the past seven month? During her daughter’s short life, she has become familiar with the norm of her mom being gone. She’s been in prison a couple of times, and her mom has left her a few other times to live her life on the streets. To this 7 year old, a mom is someone who is around one day and gone the next. What does the future look like for this 7 year old? Would it be terribly surprising if she also started using drugs at some point? If this 7 year old girl doesn’t have any healthy stable relationship in her life now, what are the chances for her to experience something different?

I get that we shouldn’t blame who we are on our circumstances, but our circumstances carry some of the responsibility. It’s not accurate to assign all the responsibility of who someone is solely on them and not their circumstances.

What if Olivia was born into completely different circumstances? What if she wasn’t raised in a toxic environment? What if she always had enough to eat? What if she wasn’t bullied throughout high school? What if she didn’t have to comprise her self-respect to gain friends? What is she wasn’t sexually abused? What if? What if she had opportunities to develop her talents and skills or at least to discover them? What if she had the chance to pursue her love of history and of traveling? What if money didn’t limit her? What if she was loved and accepted by others who had a strong sense of self? Would she have ever resorted to selling sex on the streets and using drugs to deaden her emotional and physical pain?

We are not a prisoner of our circumstances, but we should not minimize the fight that some must push through to get to the place that was so easily arrived at by another.

January 23, 2020

Time writing: 1 hour

Total time writing on this blog: 175 hours