“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
When I was a kid my family was poor. It wasn’t as though we were impoverished; we had everything we needed. But it was clear that we couldn’t have everything the other kids had and that the things we needed came at a cost that caused my folks more stress than other kids’ folks. I recall asking for many things as a kid, things I saw on the store-shelf, on the T.V., or things my friends had. They were things that I felt I needed and the answer to the requests can be largely summed up with the phrase: “No, we don’t have enough money.” As a result of that phrase I learned to have a disdain for my position in life. I learned that my economic station was at fault for my lack of satisfaction. This attitude has served well its purpose. The pervasive belief that there are the “haves” and the “have-nots” and it is a noble thing to try and pass from the post of the have-nots to the glorious company of the haves, is the perfect ethos for a society built upon the premise that unfettered consumerism is the key to capitalist success. So, I learned to have a hatred for poverty; not just my own–everyone who failed to measure up to the ideal was cannon fodder for my scorn. All the while consumerism sat in the corner laughing at the wrestling match that ensued: me vs. the red herring.
This outlook followed me into young adulthood. I graduated from High-School. I got a job at a Landscaping outfit. I got my own apartment. I got married. And thus started my own spin at life–my shot at the brass ring. My wife and I both had jobs and, while we were not rich, we were nearly financially independent…provided our cars didn’t break down and we remained reasonably healthy. I had enough money to put all the things within reach that I’d asked for as a kid. Things like: candy, and soda, and the occasional record. My wife, Kristy, can attest to the embarrassing “candy drawer” that I kept in our kitchen which was so full it presented us with a horrible ant problem one summer. While little things like ant problems caused by an over-abundance of sweets gave me cause for embarrassment, they did not shake my belief that money was the road to happiness and happiness was marked by the assurance that I was becoming increasingly economically autonomous. Blessed assurance.
So I put my head down and followed the rules and after a while I realized something. The satisfaction that I sought wasn’t found in things. I know…gasp…imagine! This story is as old as time and, to that end, the responses are summed up by two different camps: the sympathetic-bored and the dubious-bored. The sympathetic-bored nod with a sigh and say: “Yeah, life’s a bitch.”. While the dubious-bored knowingly and despondently shake their heads and think: “Maybe you’re doing it wrong.”. The response is never: let’s change the system. It is never: let’s diffuse the control that stuff enjoys over us.
In my last post I included a quote from Noam Chomsky (one of my favorite thinkers and my very favorite anarchist) that dealt with the idea that a smart way to maintain control over a people, without disturbing their perceived freedom of expression, is to control the parameters around the expression. If the stage is provided with the appropriate props then the conversation, though varied, will always be about those props. The actors are satisfied with their freedom to create and the director is satisfied with his ability to control the creation. Win. Win. As long as I’ve been alive, and as far back as I am able to research, the debate over socio-economic ideology has been shaded by four colored pencils: Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, and Communism. The colors of those four pencils being: gray. I’ve written before about my belief that there is no appreciable difference between Capitalism and Communism, and I believe that is true. All four of these “isms” are separate fingers on the same fist the thumb of which is: control. Humanity has long understood that the opposable thumb is the mechanism for control, it is useful for grasping rocks and sticks, spears and guns. It is not particularly useful for grasping thoughts.
But that is beside the point.
My point is that all four of them are only debates about the best method where-by a society exploits resources and splits the spoils. It is a debate, at its core, about the most justifiable way to divvy up power.
I’m grown up now…I have two little girls who ask for stuff and when they do my answer is exactly the same: “We don’t have enough money.” it is my knee-jerk response, as Pavlovian as any. Or at least it was until the day my daughter LuLu responded with: “I can’t wait until we’re rich and we have enough money to buy anything we want.”. It was like a punch in the gut. I told her that I was sorry but she belongs to a family where that will never happen. I told her that we believed money and resources were not tools for getting whatever we want. I told her they were supposed to be used to help others. I told her that no matter how much money we have our lives will be much the same as they are now. She seemed disappointed, and I hate to see her disappointed. But my job is to try and teach her wisdom. I think I did that.
This isn’t a post about a utopian construct. I am not naive. It isn’t a post about my making a moral judgment about your life. I’m a blogger. It would be impossible for one to overestimate my level of self-absorption. I do, however, think that those of us who enjoy a certain amount of wealth should give our motives a think. If not for the poor, then at least for our own sanity. Rash consumerism is not good for the human psyche. As a Christian the thought of my motives should always be top of mind as I contemplate how my actions show that I indeed love God and people. I struggle to reconcile the fact that similar families in similar circumstance would have some disparity between them that one would need $20,000 to be comfortable for a year and another $50,000 and another $90,000. The numbers themselves are arbitrary, but the chasm between them causes me concern. Is the extra $70,000 helping the family have a more joyful life? Or is it being used to mindlessly fill the void? It’s worth the time to determine if the blessings from above are given us to cling or kindle change…