Being Rich

I am writing this in 2012. For the last several years, the economy of the United States has been in something of a pickle. Nobody seems to be sure when it’s going to get better. There’s a heap of finger-pointing happening at the political level, and there’s a heap of finger pointing at the day-to-day level. Lots of people have lots of opinions about who to blame, and why. But having just spent this past Mother’s Day witnessing an outpouring of thanks to the wives and mothers in my church, and the country in general, I wanted to do a little pontificating about what it’s like to be rich.

Now when I say rich, I don’t mean raw finances. Speaking as someone with only a high school diploma who has made his way in the world on smarts, hard work, and a little bit of help from family, it’s been my observation that wealth comes in many forms that don’t necessarily show up in the household checkbook register.

Also, for the sake of full disclosure: my wife and I have seen some bona fide hard spots. Our first year we were married, I don’t think we made more than $10,000 US total — between the two of us. We were uninsured, and my wife’s adult-onset asthma put her into the ER and the ICU at least a couple of times. We both worked minimum-wage jobs, and I was specifically fired no less than 4 times in a 12 month period. That was 1993-1994, and over the last 19 years we’ve seen additional ups and downs. There have been moments when we’ve looked at each other and wondered aloud how we were going to make it to the end of the week, the end of the month, the end of the year, and so forth.

But, because of our shared religious background — we are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — we are admonished that gratitude is a virtue. And we’ve seen first-hand how gratitude as an attitude — a way of looking at the world — really can change things for the better. So with these prefaces in mind, let me expound a bit on what I think it means to be rich.

Being rich isn’t about the cash in your purse or wallet — it’s about knowing there is someone who loves you waiting for you when you get home. Not everybody has this.

Being rich isn’t about the kind of car you drive, or even having a car — it’s about being thankful for having the health and strength to walk, or pedal a bike. Again, not everybody has this.

Being rich isn’t about having expensive toys or accoutrement — it’s about having milk in the fridge, cereal in the cupboard, beans and weenies in a pot on the stove, and realizing that many people don’t even have a cupboard, or a stove, or a pot; much less milk, cereal, beans, or weenies.

Being rich isn’t about having a high-paying or prestigious job — there is integrity in all honest work, whether it pays minimum wage or not, and if you wear a 3-piece suit and work in a shiny office building but have to lie, cheat, steal, or defraud people for a living, you are poor regardless of how many vacations you take in Cabo.

Being rich isn’t about having a huge house — if you have four walls and a solid roof and the water from the tap comes both hot and cold, and you can drink it without getting sick, then you have luxury beyond that of many people across the globe.

Being rich isn’t about having unlimited access to the best doctors and hospitals — many people in the world don’t even have basic sanitation or first aid, much less community hospitals or clinics, to say nothing of insurance options through their jobs.

Being rich isn’t about joining country clubs — if you have a church you belong to, and/or a social circle of friends and family who genuinely love and support you at every turn, you know a kind of wealth that many financially independent people have been estranged from.

Being rich is also not about living in a swanky or upscale neighborhood — if the people on your street or your block or in your town are the kind of people you can stop in and say hello to, and who will help you out once in awhile, and you help them out in turn, and there is a tacit understanding of neighborly good will, you’ve got more than many people who live in exclusive, gated communities.

Being rich isn’t about having college degrees and pieces of paper from fancy institutions — life itself is a learning institution, and if you make the most of your existing talents and push yourself to gain new ones, and you magnify these things, and you learn from your mistakes and work to become a better person, you gain something that even death can’t take from you.

Being rich isn’t about having a slick or sophisticated image — the kind of person you are in your heart, your honesty, your benevolence towards other people, your value to your family and your friends, make all the difference between being destitute or abundant in your soul.

Being rich isn’t about being intelligent or learned in worldly things — true wisdom is accessible to even those with humble education or capacity.

Being rich isn’t about stock options or portfolios — if you’re investing in your children, in your spouse, in your brothers and sisters, in your friends and the people you care about, it will come back to you one hundred fold, often in ways you cannot begin to imagine.

Being rich isn’t about being famous or well-known — many are the stories of celebrities addicted to drugs, alcohol, or other things because they are isolated, alone, empty, with no purpose, and no real connection to themselves, or their fellow human beings.

You can, by now, see where I am going with this. We live in a world where money and material things seem to trump almost everything. But how many people who have financial independence discover that money all by itself doesn’t help them with their problems? That their problems, in fact, sometimes get worse? Because we take our internal life — our troubles and our flaws and our attitude — into any and every situation. If we’re used to seeing the glass as half empty — when we’re of limited means — we will usually keep seeing the glass as half empty even if we come into a fortune, large or small.

Therefore I think being rich really isn’t about having lots of cash, or lots of goods. It’s a function of perspective — observing your situation from a viewpoint outside of yourself, and recognizing what you truly have. And that however humble your position, realizing things could be worse. Sometimes, much worse. And that there are people in your town or city who are, right now, having a much harder time than you are. Regardless of how big their bank accounts might be.

A few more…

If you don’t have chronic asthma and can breathe without thinking about it, you are rich. Believe me, I know — I watched my wife’s asthma almost kill her a few times.

If you don’t have to rely on a dialysis machine, a colostomy bag, or a urine tube, you are rich.

If you don’t have to live in fear of tumors and cancer therapy, you are rich.

If you don’t have a bad heart, or bad lungs, or a bad liver, or bad kidneys, you are rich.

If you donโ€™t have a syndrome, disease, or birth defect that limits your mental and emotional capacity, you are rich.

If you don’t have a major alcohol or drug addiction, you are rich.

If you don’t have kids or a spouse with alcohol or drug addictions, you are rich.

If you’re not in jail because of crimes you’ve committed because of your addictions, you are rich.

If you’re not in jail, period, you are rich.

If you live in a country that doesn’t throw you in jail because the leadership feels like it, you are rich.

If you live anywhere that’s not war-torn 24/7 by petty thugs and dictators, you are rich.

If your relatives and loved ones who speak out on civil rights don’t have to worry about being sent to permanent political dungeons, you are rich.

If you are free to practice the religious beliefs of your choice, according to the directives of your own heart, and you don’t live in fear of the police or gangs coming to get you because of your beliefs, you are rich.

I’m a U.S. citizen, and I suspect U.S. citizens occasionally develop tunnel vision. We’re (mostly) used to a certain standard of living and a certain level of basic essentials and a fundamental set of basic rights, and we don’t often stop to think about the fact that none of these things — none of them — are automatic. None of them. They are the accumulated benefits of centuries of work, effort, toil, hardship, and war. We’re not aware of what we’ve got — really, what we’ve been given by generations before us — until we travel outside the U.S. or are put in a position where these things are suddenly taken away.

When I joined the United States Army Reserve in 2002 I was relatively oblivious to some of my most basic freedoms. It wasn’t until I endured Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training in 2003 that I began to realize just how wonderful it is to be able to eat what I want when I want, go where I want when I want, to sleep in if I want, to have privacy in even the most basic places like the bathroom, to not have to exercise strenuously every day, to not have to be constantly drinking water and getting salts and electrolytes so that the heat and physical strain doesn’t kill me, et cetera.

I came back to the civilian world a changed man. That first day in the airport in September 2003, after BCT and AIT were all over, I bought a cup of ice cream and sat in a comfortable chair wearing jeans and a t-shirt and reveling in the fact that suddenly, for the first time in half a year, my every waking and sleeping moment wasn’t at the mercy of someone else’s schedule, someone else’s moods, someone else’s idea of group punishment for the misdeeds of individuals.

It was just me, alone, in an airport, a free man, eating ice cream. And it was heaven. 100% pure bliss.

My perspective had been shifted, and I appreciated for the very first time some of the basic things in my life which I’d never appreciated before.

Later on, when I went to one of my NCO schools, I had the good fortune of being instructed by a senior NCO who’d been born and raised in one of the worst, most battle-torn and strife-plagued countries in Africa. He’d not yet been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and occasionally one of his students would give him a little grief about it. He would just smile at them and say, “I don’t need to go to these places to know — far better than you will ever know — what war is like. I lived it for my entire childhood. I don’t need to live it again.” He thought the U.S. was a magnificent country of splendid riches, and it was largely because he’d come from a place where nothing — not even life itself — could be taken for granted.

In the United States we have a consumerist culture that functions largely by creating false perceptions of want: that if you don’t have Thing X, you’re missing out, or you’re not as well off as your friends, or you’re not keeping up with the neighbors, or you’re uncool, and so on and so forth.

We also have political and social voices which rely on envy: that if you don’t have Thing X the way Person Y or People Z have Thing X, then it’s the fault of Person Y or People Z. You deserve to have Thing X, therefore vote for me (or give me money) and I’ll work to make sure Person Y or People Z give you Thing X, whether they like it or not. Because that’s justice.

I think it’s useful to stop and consider whether or not Thing X is all it’s cracked up to be, and whether or not the people trying to sell you Thing X — be it with advertisements or political slogans — have any clue at all about what’s truly worthwhile and essential in life.

And yes, not having money is tough. Been there, done that. Still have to watch the budget month to month and am always fretting that it’s so difficult making ends meet. Neither my wife nor myself are satisfied with where we’re at — in terms of the family finances — so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having ambition and wanting more. Only a fool doesn’t look at his financial situation and say, “You know, I really could be doing better.” But I also think it’s foolish to adopt a gloom-and-doom attitude. To look at everything we do have, and complain, “This sucks, it’s no good, I don’t have what I need or want.”

Because chances are, you actually do have what you need. Maybe not what you want, per se. Maybe not what you want or need, in sufficient quantities. But if you take a look at others peoples’ lives and their hardships and struggles, and you look at the whole world and all the struggles of people across the planet, unless you’re bound and determined to feel sorry for yourself, you can usually identify the ways in which you do in fact have wealth. Might not be in dollars and cents, exactly. But as I stated at the beginning of the essay, there are more ways to measure wealth than by the number and denominations of the bills tucked into your purse or wallet.

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8 thoughts on “Being Rich

  1. Pingback: Wealth | Thor’s Hall

  2. You said it, Brad. Though by many standards my husband and I live modestly, every night when I go to bed I am in awe that I have a snug house, a warm bed, no one is shooting at me, and I have sufficient nourishing food. And that’s not even counting the non-physical stuff, like a loving family!
    Thanks for putting it in words.

  3. Well said! What a great thing to check our perspective once in a while. Things are usually better than we think they are. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I agree with you 110% that people often lack gratitude: the tunnel vision often described as “first world problems”. It also behooves us all to keep in mind how lucky we are, in many ways, because to do otherwise blinds us to the less fortunate. I can’t see the problem of access to clean water as urgent, and something requiring my attention, if I just assume everyone everywhere can turn on a tap.

    But.

    The race to the bottom and how-lucky-you-are can be, and often is (as we saw over at Scalzi’s) used not as a reminder to be grateful, but as a way to shut down discussion of inequality and poverty. That is, variations on the old “poor people have color TVs” argument. And yes, happiness is not guaranteed if you buy the right size flat-panel monitor, but being grateful for the blessings of living in a developed nation is not going to make food magically appear in your refrigerator, or keep the local gangbangers from shooting at each other, or get the cockroaches out of your walls. It’s not a meaningful response to questions about why the very wealthy are getting certain tax breaks or laws rewritten in their favor while Pell grants are being cut.

    I think most Americans define “rich” as “never having to worry about money”. That’s why you have that college professor whining about how people suggest he’s “rich”, when he and his physician wife only have a few hundred bucks left over at the end of the month after paying for the nanny, new cars, restaurants, private schools and so on. He still has to balance a checkbook and make sure that the mortgage is paid; therefore, in his mind, he cannot be “rich”.

  5. Mythago, you know me and my arguments enough to know that while I am sympathetic to the problems of poverty and inequality, my opinions on what’s to be done about these problems tend to be rather conservative. I think it sucks that we have poor people and that we have injustices of all kinds. I also think that no matter what we try to mandate via laws or government, that a certain degree of uneven opportunity (and outcome) is inevitable. Because my particular church takes this into account, we are counseled by the leadership to always approach our individual lives from a standpoint of gratitude. Because almost always, when each of us really looks at it, things could be much worse.

    I agree with you that for most Americans “not having to worry about money” is the baseline, easy definition of rich. But this is what prompted me to write the article — I believe such a definition is mercurial and relative, and I think it’s useful for all of us to step back from time to time and realize that even if money is a constant worry — I know it is for my wife and I — this doesn’t mean we (collectively) have loads to complain about. If anything, let the worry become a motivator for positive individual choice and action. Almost everything I’ve ever done in my life that got me anywhere, has been the result of just such choices and actions.

  6. Brad, you also know me well enough to know that if I thought you, personally, were saying “STFU poor people!” I would say so bluntly. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Again, I absolutely agree with you that it behooves us to consider the blessings we have and to consider how much more fortunate we are than others. (I spent a very tedious evening in Urgent Care this weekend, and I assure you that it reminded me of how fortunate I am to have decent health insurance, and the educational and language skills to deal with hospital personnel.) My caution was about how these arguments are, unfortunately, used to indeed say “STFU poor people!”, or less maliciously, can lead us to be callous about the sufferings of others (“She may be on TANF, but at least she lives in America!”) and we should not fall into that trap.

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