Following is an excerpt from my father, Jim Ernst’s, memoirs. I am sharing it here because in his story lies a wonderful demonstration of the power of our beliefs.
“We didn’t have much food in the house. We lived in a one family house in Baldwin, NY on Long Island. I was born during the depression, and there wasn’t much call for house painters, which happened to be my father’s line of work. He drank most of what little he was able to make when he did get some work. Very little remained and was available for food. There were many nights when I remember going to bed hungry.
I think I was about 5 at the time. We had just moved into a six family house in Brooklyn, NY. My grandmother owned it and the rent was only $5 a month because my Momma was the janitor. I heard my folks talking about the fact that we had lost the house in Long Island due to foreclosure. An auction followed. I only found out much later what those words meant.
I began roaming around my new neighborhood, which was lined on both sides of the street with attached three or four floor tenement buildings. One day I heard some people talking about something called “Relief”. That happens to be what they called Welfare back then. I quickly ran home to my mother to tell her about it.
“Just think, Momma, if we applied we could get money for food, and even for rent.”
My Momma sat me on her lap and quietly explained to me that “relief” was for the poor people. I grew up in that railroad style cold water flat thinking I was not poor. To this day, I believe it was the truth as she saw it from her point of view. She was a very proud woman.
So while we didn’t get relief we got a hard working Momma instead. She went out late in the evening to clean office buildings to get enough money to put food in our mouths. That was my Momma.”
My dad went on to create a financially secure life for himself and his family. So did his sister. And so did his 3 cousins who lived upstairs from them. I don’t know the specific statistics for their neighborhood, but I am willing to bet they beat the odds. I also believe it is no accident that these five particular individuals changed their circumstances.
In talking with all of them through the years they share at least two beliefs in common: the belief that they are not poor and the belief that they are 100% responsible for their own lives.
My grandmother’s circumstances took a very unfortunate turn. Yet she stayed true to her beliefs and her own standards for integrity and dignity. Perhaps she could have accepted relief and made all of their lives easier at that time. She certainly did not begrudge others from accepting the help.
Instead it seems she gave them a greater gift – the gift of believing they were not poor so that some day they would no longer have to be.
As leaders our beliefs have the power to shape the worldview of the people who are following us. What beliefs are you leading with?