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Grasshoppers in a jar

Sheila Gilbert broke through as the first woman national President of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. She once shared her view of the necessity for systemic change. It was a simple story describing what it is like to be poor.

The childhood entertainment of capturing grasshoppers in a glass jar with holes in the lid has some predictable stages. “When you first capture the grasshopper, it jumps and jumps and jumps, trying to get out, banging its head against the lid.”

“But the longer the grasshopper’s in there, the less high it jumps, the less it tries, until finally it just sits on the bottom. That’s what it is to be in poverty long-term. After a while, you just can’t bang your head anymore. You just sit there!”

She drew a two-fold conclusion: “We have to take the lid off the jar! To keep teaching people to jump and encouraging them to jump when all they do is hit their head doesn’t make any sense! So we have to take the lid off the jar as well as help the grasshopper to jump again.”

“Urgent care of the symptoms of poverty needs to be coupled with a cure for the epidemic.” Isn’t that what people are talking about regarding societal structures and systemic change

Grasshoppers and glass ceilings

What Sheila Gilbert described as the grasshopper theory is a variant of the “glass ceiling.”

The term “glass ceiling” describes the situation that women and minorities often face in which they find it difficult or even impossible to climb out of poverty or secure an advanced professional position, simply because of their gender or race. It is the opposite of “the sky’s the limit.” The ceiling is said to be glass because, while it allows everyone to see “the sky” (i.e. elite professional opportunities), some are still prohibited from ever reaching it, through no fault of your own. Some few may overcome the obstacles and break through. But many give up hope.

Have you ever experienced being trapped in a jar?

You may not have used this image but it is not unlike many of our own experiences. Certainly, many women have! Numerous studies have shown how often women have been passed over for less-qualified men or paid less for the same job a man is doing.

Sometimes it has nothing to do with gender or race. The lid is in place simply because one has an accent, was born in another country. (“Irish need not apply!”) Left-handers can tell you the difficulties of living in a society based on being right-handed. Think how many school desks were built for left-handers.

The list is long. So I suspect it would not be hard for you to identify at least some times you have been discriminated against due to a condition you had no control over. What about people who bang their heads against such lids day in and day out?

The grasshopper dimension

I believe we have all experienced discrimination and roadblocks to our dreams. But some of us face more than others and get worn down.

The grasshopper theory seems to me to add another dimension. It highlights what happens when you run into the same obstacle over and over. There is the tendency to give up.

Coping with societal lids

  • What are the major lids or stress points that make it difficult for large groups of people to succeed?
  • What can we as Vincentians do to lift those lids, level the playing fields?

Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk

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