If you are naked, cold, and hungry, and somehow you get shelter, clothing, and food, you will feel better. Providing for these necessities creates a qualitative change in life, and could even be said to, in some ways, produce “happiness.” You feel comfortable and safe. Your internal state-your state of mind and emotional sense of well-being-has improved as a result of these external changes in the circumstances of your body, the result of your having acquired some stuff.
Let’s refer to this as the “enough point.” It represents the point where a person has security, where their life and existence is not in danger.
“If some stuff will make you happy, then twice as much stuff will make you twice as happy, ten times as much will make you ten times as happy, and so on into infinity.”
By this logic, the fabulously rich such as Prince Charles or Donald Trump or King Fahd must live in a state of perpetual bliss. “Greed is good,” the oft-repeated mantra of the Reagan era, embodied the religious or moral way of expressing this myth. More is better. He who dies with the most toys wins.
Many of those Americans who lived through the Great Depression discovered in that time that “more is better” is a myth. My wife’s grandmother, now in her nineties and still living frugally but comfortably, owned a family farm during that time, and was able to provide for nearly all her family’s needs by growing her own food, burning wood, and making their clothing. Recycling wasn’t a fad to save the environment, but a necessary part of staying alive and comfortable. Now in her old age, great-grandma has enough money in investments and from the sale of the farm to live a rather extravagant lifestyle, but she still buys her two dresses each year from the Sears catalog, collects rainwater to wash her beautiful long hair, writes poetry, and finds joy in preparing her own meals from scratch. She saw the myth for what it was, and continues to be unaffected by it.
Some, of course, came through the Great Depression so scarred by the experience that they went in the opposite direction and totally embraced the myth. The excesses of Howard Hughes, for example, are legendary-as is the painful reality that virtually limitless resources never bought him happiness.
Similarly, the myth has become a core belief in the cultures of America, much of Europe, and most of the developing world. Advertisers encourage children and adults to acquire products they don’t need, with the implicit message that that getting, having, and using things will produce happiness. Often the advertising message of “buy this and you will be happier” is so blatant as to be startling to a person sensitized to the myth. Forget about the “enough point,” these sellers say: this product or service will be the one that finally brings you fulfillment.
But we are the people-both those who feel that “enough” is a humble level of comfort and those who crave great wealth-of our culture. Like the air we breathe, it’s often easy to forget that we are members of a culture which is unique and has its own assumptions. This Younger Culture (since the rise of the city-states of Mesopotamia, about 6000 years ago) is based on a simple economy-you produce goods or services which have value to others, and then exchange them with others for goods or services they produced which you want or need. Money arose as a way of simplifying the exchange, but this is the basic equation. This concept of wealth as a measure of goods or money owned is intrinsic to these cultures, and so in this regard you could say that all of these different cultures around the world are really the same, variations on a single theme, different patterns woven of the same cloth.
While they number fewer than one percent of all humans on the planet, the result of a relentless 5-millenium genocide by our worldwide Younger Culture, there are still people alive on Earth who are members of Older Cultures that predate the Mesopotamian city-states. There are also people whose Older Culture ways have only been so recently taken from them-such as many Native American tribes-that while they may no longer live the Older Culture way, they remember it.
In these Older Cultures, the concept of “more is better” is unknown. They would consider “greed is good” to be the statement of an insane person. One person eating near another who is hungry is an obscene act.
These values and norms of behavior are quite different from those we see in our own world today. But why?
The reason is simple: security is their wealth, not goods or services.
In Older Cultures, the goal of the entire community is to get every person in the community to the “enough point.” Once that is reached and ensured, people are free to pursue their own personal interests and bliss. The shaman explores trance states, the potter makes more elegant pots, the storyteller spins new yarns, and parents play with and teach their children how to live successfully.
Because Older Culture people usually work together to create enough food, shelter, clothing, and comfort to reach the “enough point,” and then shift their attention and values at that point to other, more internal pursuits (such as “fun” or spirituality), they look to us in Younger Cultures to be poor.
I remember spending a few days with a Native American healer who taught me about a particular Native American ritual I’ve promised not to reveal in my writing. He lived in a mobile home in the desert, on reservation land that was pitifully lacking in anything except scrub brush, cactus, and dust. His car, a Chevy from the 70’s, was missing major body parts, and he traded healing ceremonies with the locals for food, gasoline, clothes, and pretty much everything else he needed. His income in actual cash was probably less than $500 a year, and if you added up the total market value of everything else he took in during the course of a year it was probably less than $5000. By any standard of contemporary western culture, he was about as poor as you can be in America and still stay alive. And his lifestyle was nearly identical to the other 200 or 300 families who lived within twenty miles of him and were members of his tribe: they were all “poor.”
But he had things that most of the people I knew back in Atlanta living in $200,000 suburban homes totally lacked.
If he became ill, people would care for him. If he needed food or clothes, they’d give them to him. If he was in trouble, they were there with him. When his only child needed something, somehow it always materialized from the local community. When he got old, he knew somebody would take him in; if he lost his home, others would help him build or find another. No matter what happened to him, it was as if it happened to the entire community.
As we got to know each other, and I met others in his small “town,” I discovered that his riches of security and support from his neighbors weren’t unique to him because he was the community’s healer. The same was true of every person in the “town,” from the guys who did part-time carpentry work in the Anglo city 122 miles away to the town drunk(s). Everybody had cradle-to-grave security, to the maximum extent that it could be provided by the members of the tribe.
After returning from my first trip to New Mexico, I had dinner with a friend who’s a successful attorney with a big law firm in Atlanta.
“What would happen if you lost your job?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I’d probably get another one.”
“What if the job market was bad. Like there was a recession or depression? Or what if you lost your job because of some monumental screw-up you did on a case?”
He looked at his plate of spaghetti with a troubled expression, staring at the twisted strands as if his future was there. “I don’t know,” he said softly. “I suppose I’d lost my house first: the mortgage payments, insurance, and taxes are well over two thousand dollars a month. And the car is another five hundred.”
“And if your health went bad?” I said. “If you had some serious disease?”
He looked up. “You mean without the insurance from my employer?”
“I’d die,” he said. “I have a colleague who spends most of his time defending insurance companies who’ve done that to people who got sick. They then start looking through the insurance applications to see if there were any things on there the person forgot to mention when they filled it out, like a pre-existing condition, or that they’d once been turned down for insurance. If they find it, they dump them. I know of several people who’ve died, who could be alive today if they’d had the money for the medical care.”
“And when you get old?”
“I have my retirement fund. My 401k.”
“What if your company ripped it off, or it was all in stocks and the market crashed?”
He shook his head. “I’d be living on the streets, or in my kid’s garage, assuming he could afford to have me. It wouldn’t be pretty.”
Even more than his words, his tone of voice and his eyes gave away his essential insecurity. If his employer went down, so would he. He was living-as was I at the time-on a tenuous thread of debt and workaday income and hope that the government could somehow manage to keep the country’s financial house of cards from crashing down as it had so many times in the past few centuries.
“If you could have anything at all,” I asked him, “what would it be?”
“That’s easy,” he said, smiling. “More time. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and I feel like I’m on a continuous treadmill. There’s never enough time to spend with my kids, my wife, our family and friends, or even to read a good book. Three nights out of the week I bring work home, and I know that if I’m going to make partner in the firm one day, it’ll have to become five, and maybe even seven days a week. I have no time.”
My friend, surrounded by a wealth of physical possessions, a fancy home with elegant carpeting and furniture, a new Mercedes, wearing a $800 suit, was steeped in the poverty which is unique to Younger Cultures: the poverty of spirit, of time, of security and support. His life had no safe foundation, and seemed to have little meaning beyond achieving the next level of income and creature comforts.
As my Native American mentor said of me, “Boy, you think you’re rich, but you’re poor beyond your imaginings.”
So we must, as a culture, rediscover where the point of “enough” is, both materially and spiritually. By finding this point, you become infinitely richer.