Lately I’ve been thinking about wealth. I’m an obsessive money saver, and am constantly trying to identify ways that I can save more and spend less. While this works out well for me in terms of accruing less junk in my home and having money to spend on things I really enjoy (like travel), it can also create the habit of obsessing about money – something I never want to be too wound up about. With all the cultural dialogue taking place about the Occupy movement and major wealth divisions in our society, I’ve been trying to define for myself: what does it mean to be wealthy?
I think at one point in my life, it meant having a whole lotta dough. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, I imagined being outrageously wealthy and having money to freely spend on whatever I chose. Of course, I always imagined being a philanthropist since expensive handbags aren’t really, well, my bag (har!). Even so, piles of cash = wealth for me.
Now, I look back on that version of myself and am simultaneously amused and repulsed. How could that have been my definition of wealth? I had fewer bills to pay back then, and was less financially independent than I am now…and yet I just wanted money. Today, I live in a cabin without running water and all my furniture was free or from yard sales. Not exactly living the “dream” for most people, but today I had a wonderful realization. A few years ago when I was living in a dark apartment and suffering from the winter blues (S.A.D.), I realized that the only thing I really wanted was to live in my own little cabin in the woods where I could go on snowy walks, have a dog to accompany me, and be able to wash dishes while looking out my sunny window at the snowy wonderland Fairbanks becomes in the winter.
This morning, I realize while I did dishes (my least favorite chore) that I was, indeed, looking out my window at the birds dashing about the birdfeeder, the winter sun on my face, and my room mate’s dog snoozing on the couch behind me. What a wonderful moment. I didn’t really realize it with all the other things going on in my life, but this year, I achieved my dream! And with that realization, I suddenly could define what it means to be wealthy.
For me, wealth is not in how much I have, but in the quality of the things I possess. It’s in my mental health, and in the birds bickering over seeds outside my window. It’s in little successes of indoor gardening and home made bread, and in the last six months, it’s been in the love of a really happy, healthy relationship. I know, I know…so what? Most of us know deep in our hearts what real “wealth” is…right? Sometimes I’m not so convinced.
I have a few acquaintances who spend their ever spare moment watching T.V. While I don’t fault their choice of hobbies (I adore a good movie night now and again), I simply am in awe of their programming choices. Jersey Shore, The Hills, endless reality shows about consumption, cattiness, and exploiting others for one’s own gain. I’ve been unfortunate enough to watch these programs in passing snippets, and I’m always appalled by the behavior of the “celebrities” they feature. You never hear them talk about what really makes them happy, and indeed I imagine it would be difficult to have such thoughts after condemning your brain to bottles of aerosol products. When did we, as a culture, as an American people, forget what makes us happy? I look back at our agricultural past and think, “Yeah, things were harder back then. And sure, we didn’t have many great things we have now (faster communication, modern medicine, etc.), but we also had such a deep appreciation for our lives, for what we had, and we were happy with SO much less!”
I feel that wealth is in discovering what makes you happy. Not things, not stuff; instead, the people and relationships and places that fill your heart up with that intangible lightness of being who you are. For me, wealth was going out with friends last night and coming home feeling rich with their friendship. Today, wealth is going to be going for a walk in the snowy woods with Tom (and the dog, of course) and appreciating the immense and wonderful landscape I live in. This weekend, wealth is going to be providing my own healthy foodstuffs and contributing to the causes that make our nation so great.
And yet, I cannot end this post without acknowledging that our culture and current market system does not treat wealth as an intangible commodity. Indeed, my late teenage self was more on track in understanding “wealth” than my current self. In our culture, we are taught by advertising that we can be whatever we want and achieve our dreams if we work hard enough, and yet many of us are unable to find work that allows us to pay for the basics. I sympathize with the Occupy movement because while I’m happy here in my snug cabin enjoying a wealthy life, I know many people are not afforded such luxuries. It’s fine to find the joy in the morning’s sunrise, but it’s infinitely more difficult to do so if starvation or homelessness lies just over the horizon. I feel that our country and government have allowed the values of a few to overwhelm the values of many, and subsequently our media and entertainment reflect those values. I want to vote for someone who believes in the value of hard work, and supports a system where everyone is afforded that chance. Where education is valued. Where the wealth of family and privacy and owning the means of one’s labor are important. I have no problem with people being individually wealthy, but I can’t abide by the wealth of one person denying the “wealth” of another, whatever it might be.
So, with that, I’m going to head outside and enjoy the wealth of the day. May your week be full of your own kinds of riches.