“this is your brain. this is your brain in poverty.”: what bed bugs have taught me about scarcity

bed bugs

i wouldn’t wish bed bugs on anyone. this summer our home had a bed bug infestation. before that i only vaguely knew of them as a little warning to sleep tight and not let them bite. yes, there are a lot of pests that bite, and although they eat our blood, they are not that painful as far as bites go. what makes bed bugs so terrible are the psychological toll they can take (they hide in the very places where you go to rest, often transferred undetected) and that they take so much work to get rid (often making one feel plagued for life).

after packing up most of our belongings in bags, paying an exterminator, weeks of intensive spraying, cleaning, drying it was so disheartening to see a new bite appear. honestly, it’s been hard to trust that God will not let any “plague come near [our] tent” (Ps 91:10) when evidence of them seems to pop up just when we think its finally safe. i’ve been asking God what he’s teaching us through all of this.

there may be many lessons still to uncover but at least one that has become clear to me is that our family has gotten a very small taste of what’s it’s like to have to operate under the stress of scarcity. please understand, i in no way mean to put poverty and bed bugs in the same category and for this reason i say our experience was only a taste. i could not imagine if i had to eat (or more aptly experience the hunger of) the reality of scarcity every day. in our case, the scarcity was more in time and emotional energy. studies have shown that when there is scarcity of money, time, and/or “bandwidth” (how much mental space you have to work with when not pressed for money or time) it actually changes the way you think. a test done on sugarcane farmers found that compared to a post-harvest test (when they are the richest), pre-harvest (when they are the poorest) these SAME farmers performed 13 points worse on an I.Q. test…that is the equivalent brain power difference when one has lost a full night’s sleep.   a similar test measuring cognitive capacity, in a situation of scarcity verses plenty, was done in a mall in new jersey and found similar results. in short ANYONE, who is placed in a mental state of scarcity will have significant issues in performance. during the weeks when our bed bug situation was at it’s worst, it felt like my wife and i were not ourselves. i couldn’t think straight, i had trouble with the most mundane cognitive functions, i could barely be present in conversations.

now this is only our middle-class experience with bed bugs. my family had to throw away a good number of things, but this assumes the luxury to be able to pay for an exterminator as well as to replace household items. imagine if you had to deal with this pestilence AND poverty? this is what many in our low-income community have had to experience. a family in our church discovered bed bugs in their rented apartment. they told their landlords but their landlords denied it, even with proof of the bugs in bags. for 2 MONTHS they had to just live with the bed bugs spreading with no recourse or resources to pay for an exterminator themselves. bed bugs don’t discriminate between rich or poor, yet there is a big difference in how one is resourced to deal with such a thing if one is rich or poor.   this goes for many things beyond pests.  if indeed every human life has dignity and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, than we have a God-given duty to work toward justice in this broken world.   this experience has given my brain a taste of the experience of my neighbor.

Lord, may we not rest until you are our “dwelling place” (Psalm 91:9).

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