Richer or Poorer, Lost Either Way

A few weeks ago my husband told me all our money had gone to pay the bills and I was to avoid spending a dime until the next payday. No problem, I thought, I’ve definitely been here before. But I still felt poor in that moment. Then I took the trash out, and after the lid closed on the can, my gaze moved upward to take in the 30 or so foot expanse of our home’s eastern facing side. Standing there in the shadow of all that siding, I realized: I live in a mansion. My home value is fairly average for Austin, but to billions of people around the world, the 2,225 square feet we call home might as well be a castle.

I know this in my mind, yet I don’t feel it. I don’t feel like a queen. With a few exceptions (i.e., the odd monk), we all want to achieve financial success. We all want to be able to afford a certain level of financial comfort for ourselves and our families. When we fall short of this goal, we feel bad. But how much is enough? What is the magic number on our bank statement that will make us finally stop yearning for more?

When I hear stories of CEOs of huge corporations making decisions based on personal greed, I think, how could they? They are already so rich. Why on earth would they be so driven by greed when they already have so much? Surely they don’t want any more money when they already have multiple homes, vacations to anywhere, the odd jet or two.

But the truth is those CEOs are not so different from me. Yes, I’m most definitely jetless, but we share that constant desire for more even though we already have so much. Sometimes I think about the woman half a world a way who lives in a tiny apartment she shares with 10 others, about how she must watch Oprah from time to time and marvel at the riches of the average middle class American. If she met me, she would most likely think about me the same thing I think of those CEOs: How could you possibly want more when you already have so much?

When I think of it that way, I am completely humbled. I feel guilty for being so unappreciative. But feeling bad about wanting more does very little to dissuade my wanting. I think I came out my mother’s womb looking for stuff. I must have toddled around my childhood home with a catalog in one hand and a credit card in the other. I actually remember spending what seems like hours pouring over the JCPenney catalog as a girl, circling frilly dresses and Easy-Bake ovens with a fat marker. Of course, now my desires aren’t always so superficial. Much of what I want now is for my children: more experiences, a better education, wider travels. (But curtains for the living room are still near the top of the list.)

I’ve been here before in my brain, traveled down this mental road several times since my divorce, that dividing line in my life when so much of what I thought I knew was scratched out in red pen. At that point, I realized I had been spending a great deal of time and energy trying to make certain aspects of my life look perfect. I like to call it the Martha Stewart Disease. I’m a sucker for the domestic arts: baking, decorating, entertaining, and I can be a perfectionist (when I’m not completely slacking), so you can see I am at high risk for contracting MSD. Throw pillows, flower arrangements, wall color, these are all things I can spend whole chunks of time thinking about.

After experiencing the humiliation of having my marital problems turned out for all the world to see (not very Martha Stewart-like, despite the fact that she’s experienced her own very public humiliation), I was able to see some things more clearly. My new blue-sky clarity helped me realize, behind all this push for perfection was an unfortunate objective: impressing others. What was I working so hard for, running around my house like a mad woman before a party? A moment or two of admiration in someone else’s stream of thoughts? How long would that last, maybe 30 seconds? And what good does this thought in their brain do for me? Nothing! Not a bit of anything. Wow. That was eye-opening. (Some people know this intrinsically like they know 1 + 1 = 2. Those people are laughing at me right now.)

But then came the big reveal: I realized that to the extent I achieved success at this–making myself look perfect–I would by definition be making others feel worse. I had never thought of the outcome of my facade before. I was just trying to play and look a part that I wanted to be. But all at once I saw that any elevation in my status was inherently tied to a lowering in someone else’s. This is most definitely not something I want to devote my life’s energy to.

“Rich” and “poor” are by definition relative terms, and they are tied to one another. The moral problem with my wanting to be rich reaches beyond just my being unappreciative of what I have. To be “rich” means others must be poor. Without the poverty of others to compare myself against, I cannot feel rich. “Rich” requires difference; even more, it requires inequity.

When I bought my first brand new car, back when I was in my late twenties, I had a job that took me into all parts of Austin. I felt guilty driving my new SUV through poorer neighborhoods. I felt conspicuous having more than those around me, and I didn’t enjoy the feeling. Do I honestly think I would enjoy this on a much larger scale?

Here I am thinking that to have more money would be a good thing, something I really want—but do I really want to be rich if it means I must constantly experience the poverty of others in order to feel that way? It’s hard enough to feel so unequal with people on the other side of the globe. Do I really think it sound like fun to have way more than most people in Austin?

Of course, I say all that, and I still want those curtains for the living room, the next European vacation, and that expensive summer camp for my son as much as I did before. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what it’s going to take for me to wake up.

But maybe if I’m honest I’ll admit it’s not a matter of waking up. The crappy thing is, I love what I have. I love my house. I love the relative luxuries my family and I are able to enjoy. I just don’t want to think about how all those things are made possible by others having less. I don’t think about that, but I suppose it’s true. If some giant person with a magic wand were to abracadabra fix everything so that everyone on our planet shared the earth’s resources equally, I would end up with less at the end of the day. A lot of people in America would. Do I want this, equality that means less for me? Yes. And of course no. But if I do want it, what do I do right now? I’m only one person, and I don’t have a magic wand. So what can I do? Sell what I have, give it to the poor, and follow someone wiser than I? OK, but what do I do with the kids? Where do we live? If we’re wandering around under the bridge, that’s hardly any way to raise a family. So maybe I don’t sell all I have, just the curtains. I just made a Goodwill run, do you think that’s good enough? How about I just sell my husband’s stuff—would that be OK? As you can see, I’m confused. Sorry about that, leading you down this long road only to end up lost in the desert. Perhaps another day I’ll have something more enlightened to say.

© Amy Daniewicz and Beneath the Trees

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