Wealth and poverty are purely relative, subjective terms. They are also purely subjective experiences. I often think about the Emperor Charlemagne, for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is that what qualified as vast riches in 800 AD is not very impressive to me. The only thing Charlemagne had that I envy is convenient access to natural hot springs. He had plenty of money, but what could he buy with it? Horses, clothes, and food? Oho, but I have all sorts of riches that he didn’t. Nice penmanship, for one thing. I have (our world has) the internet, near-universal literacy, vaccines, sanitation, rapid transportation, images of the surface of Mars, forks, antibiotics, and all sorts of other fantastic things, not the least of which is the comfy pillow I use every night. Compared to anyone at the threshold of the Middle Ages, most of us are very wealthy indeed.
We don’t feel it, though. Human progress is driven at least in part by social comparison. We are constantly comparing ourselves to the next guy up the ladder, the one who has it better than we do. We don’t spend much time feeling grateful that we have what someone else doesn’t have. (Vision, hearing, working limbs, sanity, living family members, literacy, happy memories, freedom from addiction, liberty). I can stand up and walk across the room without feeling dizzy or needing anyone to help me. Every single time that happens, I should rejoice. There are thousands of people who would, whose health means that they could never take such a miraculous event for granted. That’s not how it works, though. We’re built to want more. Always more. If we were all content with what we had, nobody would ever make anything, and we’d still all be living under thatched roofs, sharing the room with our livestock.
To be called a ‘consumer’ in most cultures throughout world history would have been taken as a deadly insult. It’s saying that you eat more than you produce, that you are literally nothing more than ‘another mouth to feed.’ All you do is consume? Get out of here! This is one of the major differences between the present and the not-so-distant past. Most people have always been farmers and/or artisans. While they lived near (or below) subsistence level, meaning one season of bad crops could leave them starving, everyone shared in that. There’s little to envy when you and your neighbors are all in the same situation. What they had that we don’t is more cooperation. They worked together or they didn’t make it. Early people may have had more of a sense of purpose; they spent their days trying to store food, make and repair basic household items, and keep their children alive. At the end of the day, it would have been fairly obvious whether their work made an impact.
One of the first things we buy with money is isolation. Privacy is the single thing the wealthiest celebrities want the most. We want to get further from our neighbors. We want thicker walls, bigger yards, wider airplane seats, private beaches. It’s sad to think that the richer people get, the harder it is for them to know whom they can trust. Obscurity can be seen as a great gift in that context. So can a small circle of real friends.
This is an exercise that I do. I think about ways my life would be different if I had more money. Some of them are good, but many of them are bad. My taxes would be more complicated. I worry quite a bit about becoming jaded by greater comfort and no longer being able to deal with the hassles of poverty if I needed to. I worry that living in a higher-end neighborhood would attract home invaders. I worry about awakening the demons of materialism and social comparison, suddenly wanting expensive jewelry or… I guess I’m not sure what very wealthy people are supposed to want.
The truth is that not much about my life would change if we had a higher income. I call my phone the “billionaire phone” because it’s the same make and model I would buy no matter how much money we had. We would eat the same way. We would spend the same amount of time with our pets. I might get a personal trainer, but otherwise, I’m already fit and strong. Okay, okay, I would definitely run out and upgrade my laptop. The biggest change, though, would be that we would spend more time with our friends and family. Probably we could use Skype and do that more anyway. If there is one thing that people tend to take for granted in our daily dissatisfaction meditations, it is the physical presence of loved ones.
Mine is a Cinderella story, that is, if Cinderella used her housekeeping skills to put herself through college and then met a handsome aerospace engineer at whom she threw a shoe. One thing I have noticed since I stopped being poor is that I rarely spend time wishing I had something. I eat at restaurants less often, I “shop” less often, I have about 20% of the clothes I used to have, and I go out to the movies less often. I don’t eat as much candy. In fact, I quit eating junk food and drinking soda entirely. I used to have this serious sense of FoMO (Fear of Missing Out). I couldn’t bear to feel “deprived” of something. Now the only deprivation I worry about is sleep deprivation. Slamming the door on poverty was a watershed in my life. At 40, I’m significantly healthier and stronger than I was at 20. I have better posture, more muscle, and more color in my face. I sleep more and I eat a better diet. Some of that is due to knowledge, but some of it is just due to feeling the sense of abundance and opportunity. I can largely afford to do what I want, eat what I want, buy what I want, and go where I want. That means I don’t really spend any time worrying about what I can’t afford to do. It’s funny, though, that so many things I longed for 10-15 years ago don’t interest me anymore. Most of the things I do now were available to me then, if only I had realized it.
As a poor person, I could still have learned how to defeat my sleep problems. Sleep is the single most valuable thing, if you ask me, and being well-rested is the difference between feeling like life is either a motel or a luxury resort. As a poor person, I could have meditated and done yoga. I could have taken up running; I would have eaten the same amount and just not been 35 pounds overweight. As a poor person, I didn’t know it, but I could have spent the same amount and eaten a much higher quality diet. I could have had a “capsule wardrobe” and spent the same amount on many fewer items of clothing. The difference between one $40 blouse and ten $4 Goodwill shirts is a matter of storage space. I still had access to the public library and the parks that I enjoy today. The most important thing I enjoy today that was available to me when I was poor was the ability to create interesting projects. I’m a writer. Anyone can keep a journal or write poetry anywhere, with the cheapest of materials.
What makes us poor? Lack of physical security – feeling like you might be attacked on the streets of your neighborhood. That happened to me in 1998, and it was among the greatest terrors I’ve ever felt. Feeling like your neighbors or roommates might steal from you. That’s happened to me, too. Lack of access to health care. Yup, been there, avoided necessary medical appointments, even had a medical bill sent to collections (and it was under $40). Lack of agency in our work – feeling like we have no other options and that we have to endure unfair, unprofessional treatment. Don’t get me started. Lack of vision – not being able to see any alternatives. Today is just like yesterday and tomorrow will be the same. We have to bust that up. It’s true that a billion people in the world endure terrible poverty, corrupt governments, warfare, loose landmines, endemic diseases, human trafficking, and every other evil the human mind can devise. We start to feel wealthy when we use social comparison as a reminder of how good we have it. We start to feel strong when we realize that we have the power to fight for a better world for those who are suffering more than we are.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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