WASHINGTON, November 25, 2014 — I am a fabulously wealthy man. I don’t have a great deal of money, and after a few years of retirement, I may have to work at Walmart, but my family is unimaginably rich.
In a trivial way, we’re all rich. We’re materially rich by the standards of another age. Louis XIV had Versailles, but we have hot running water, flush toilets and air conditioning. Charlemagne had servants to comb the lice out of his hair. We don’t have servants, but we do have shampoo and toothpaste. Lorenzo de’ Medici, “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” was the wealthiest man in Europe, but with two words I can prove that your life is better than his: “novocaine” and “dentistry.”
Unlike the richest people of medieval Europe, we can eat oranges in the winter, ice cream in the summer, and chocolate whenever we please. The poorest of us can travel farther and in greater comfort than Louis could ever imagine, our underwear is so soft that it would make Charlemagne in his woolen underwear weep, and we hardly think about infections that would make the flesh of our great grandparents rot from their bones after a paper cut.
In the midst of this staggering wealth, we often think we’re poor.
Poverty in America is real. For many Americans, real wages are stagnant or falling. The work force continues to contract while real unemployment remains stubbornly in the double digits. Some among us are homeless and hungry. As we kick off the holiday season with Thanksgiving, we might ask, what exactly are we thankful for?
Poverty in America and around the world is real, but few of us understand what it really is. In absolute terms, the word is almost meaningless. Were stone-age hunters poor? The Pilgrims? The plains and pueblo Indians? How about medieval kings and Mayan lords?
It is better to think of poverty as relative, but comparing your life to Charlemagne’s is useless. Even the poorest among us live longer, healthier lives than the wealthiest dreamed of a hundred years ago, but that doesn’t make poverty today less real.
We often define poverty by what others have and we don’t. It doesn’t really matter that we have flat-screen TVs, air conditioned cars, hot running water, and enough food to make us fat — all things that once would have identified us as among the elite. That we have those things doesn’t make our poverty less real. But understanding its relative nature forces us to re-think our relationship to wealth and how wealth makes us happy.
“Who here is poor?” When I asked this question last week, most of my students raised their hands. By most standards, they were correct. They have little income, less wealth, and enormous debt relative to the little wealth they own.
But none of them seriously consider themselves poor. They have futures and high hopes for personal and career success. They believe their lives will be better. They’re building a form of wealth that can’t be taken away by recession or theft: intellectual capital. They’re not really poor, and they know it.
Wealth and poverty are not fundamentally about how much physical wealth we have. True poverty is poverty of hope and imagination. It’s poverty of spirit.
The poor will be with us always, and poverty, even when the poorest are millionaires. That’s because there will always be those of us with our noses in the dirt, not our eyes to the stars, valuing what we don’t have and despising what we do have.
We value wealth and power and status, what rust and moth can devour and what can be stripped from us in an instant. They come and go as luck decrees, and if she demands that they go, we have no power to keep them. We can never really own them, so why should we let them govern our happiness? Why do we call those things wealth?
Having no money is no tragedy, and by itself it isn’t poverty. Having no imagination and no hope for a better, happier life is. What distinguishes a peasant from a person who simply has no money is that the peasant can’t imagine a better life. People who are simply without funds often go on to build hugely happy lives, and sometimes, enormous fortunes.
Love of family and love of friends are wealth; poverty strips them away. It strips them away when privation drives us to despair, and it strips them away when ambition and blind ego lead us to value careers and possessions more than we value the people who love us. True poverty makes us throw away what’s precious so that we can chase after what’s cheap.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are the stressful endpoints of a stressful time of year. We run around worrying about money, preparing feasts, decorating our homes, buying presents, and feeling disappointed when everything isn’t the way we want it to be. If that’s what we’re focused on, it doesn’t matter how much money we have; we are mired in poverty.
The wealthy man feels gratitude. The poor man feels disappointment. Wealth looks to the future and enjoys the now; poverty looks only to the past. Looking forward, it is blind.
Wealth is being able to sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner of canned tuna and to enjoy family and friends as they are, not as we wish they were.
“Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”
My children will misbehave today. I know that as surely as I know the sun will rise in the east. My wife and I will try to cook too many dishes, the food won’t all be ready at the same time, the kids will be angry and unhelpful, there will be shouting and spills and complaints. “Why aren’t we having turkey? What is this stuff? It looks disgusting!”
Today will be filled with the temptation to yell at the kids, to resent their ingratitude, and to find reasons to be miserable. It will pass. Someday the kids won’t be here, and my wife and I will eat tuna and watch TV on Thanksgiving and be grateful that we have each other and that the kids are happy and well.
On that day we’ll miss our children, but we’ll be grateful — and rich. This week we’ll be grateful for the chaos and the mess. We don’t have much money, at least compared to members of Congress — it’s all relative — but we’re rich and we know it.
Whatever the stresses and disappointments of the season — and there are sure to be many — may you find that you, too, are rich. Hold on to gratitude, hope and love, and you will be.