In my life and work, I have had many encounters with people from all walks of life and I have learned that wealth has nothing to do with how much money you have. Absolutely nothing.
There are those who swim in money but wield it in unscrupulous ways so that it ceases to be economic currency and morphs, instead, into a weapon of mass destruction, chosen especially to perpetuate power struggles. But there are also individuals who don’t have much, yet manage to create living worlds out of what they have. Money is just money but the spectrum of our attitudes toward it simply amaze and, too often, horrify. There is the student who will join a group for a meal at a restaurant, make a side trip to the ATM, and then order whatever her budget allows. Then there is the working gentleman who will not order anything, eat off other people and then take their leftovers home. There are those who would use what they have to hoard objects that define their status in society and indulge in the frequent and public display of it, preferably with lots of press mileage, and others who quietly give what they have towards non-material endeavors.
In all my years, I have finally learned that true wealth is not how much you have but how you stand before it. If one can stand objectively before material abundance and not become swayed nor controlled by it, gripped by fear and anxiety over the possibility of loss, choked with apprehension, inflated with false power, overtaken by visions of yachts, designer goods and other trite symbols of money, nor be inexplicably driven to accumulate anything—if one can stand before a truckload of gold and still remain who he is at heart, then I would say that person has in him all he needs in the world. And that is a picture of wealth. Today our wants have far eclipsed our needs; there is a continent between them. And there, in the midst of it, is the big white elephant in the living room—money—that is so deeply and unconsciously connected with our emotional life.
Our attitude towards money goes as far back as our childhood and the way our parents dealt with their financial woes and joys, how they gave and received, withheld or shared. Before we come into money, we first inherit our attitude towards it, which determines how we spend and use it for the rest of our lives. Part of coming into adulthood is to wade through this mess and recreate who we are in relation to money and all it brings, and make conscious patterns and attitudes that have been formed from the outside. Our challenge in these times is to know when what we have is enough, to discern want from need, and to temper the needs that seem to keep sprouting new needs. We have to stop the cycle of compulsive consumption, get off that train and behave more responsibly about what we have been given. We have developed a tendency to use charity as a salve to mask the gaping hole of our diminishing conscience. We put out here and there, sometimes in big, fabulous, public strokes, to make up for the material indulgences in our own lives. This gives us a sense of balance and somehow justifies our excesses. But that’s a game. For as long as we are not creating
In a perfect world, wealth would simplify lives. Living with what you need and sharing what you don’t is a healthy way to exist and co-exist. Money buys you pairs and pairs of shoes, each costing what a family in this country takes months, even years to earn. It manifests itself around your wrist, drops from your ears, drapes your neck, hangs beautifully from your self-cleaning windows, cushions your bare feet, shuttles you from one pristine island to the next and cradles your now-fragile aristocratic back at the end of your adventures. And there it stops. It’s about you.
Wealth gives you the sense, strength, will and heart to put this money behind something you want to see happen in your community instead, something you truly believe in, something that doesn’t have to bear your name on it—no plaques, no glory. You simply look at the bounty, take your share, and then let the rest do its work in the world towards transformative endeavors,
Learning and living this is a process of simplifying and getting to know oneself. It took me years to figure out that too much mold growing on my belongings in storage wasn’t just a mold problem. It was a problem of having too many unused, stagnant things. If you’re not using what you have, you have too much! I downgraded, simplified, and find that there is still more room to pare down. Today, it is a constant practice. Nice shirt, yes, but still white and how many of those do you really need, no matter how often the self-proclaimed style mavens scream, “You can never have enough white shirts!!” You can. You can have too many. You can have too much of anything. Accumulation is not wealth; it is the opposite. It is making stagnant something that should flow outwardly towards more relevant use.
When I moved to a house a third the size of my former one and began to unpack, I was literally overwhelmed with stuff. Stuffed with stuff. I unearthed Christmas presents from the past that were stored and never used. My burden—and that is truly what it was—was to unload this sorry accumulation. I sold, gave to friends, donated to charity bazaars and simply put things where they ought to be—not all with me doing nothing, but everywhere else doing something! Money is a practical way to move in the world and it is our task to make sure it moves through us in meaningful and positive ways. This perspective would not be complete without a word on stolen or ill-gotten money. It is not wealth and it is not yours. No amount of putting it into “projects for the poor” will make it so. Raising children on money that is coated in slime is unforgivable. It is not the way to give them a better life; it is a straight path to a lifetime of murky and unresolved money issues. What parent would bequeath such a burden to their children?
Wealth carries a strong moral imperative that is passed down to our children (and theirs) by the way we spend—what and when we buy things for them and our current attitudes and habits surrounding money. What is the right age for them to get their first cell phone, what will it be used for, how will the bills be regulated, what happens when it is lost, what model are you getting for them, how often will you upgrade? How many pairs of basketball shoes do they have? Need? Laptop vs. desktop? We are monitoring more than the objects themselves but their relevance, use, the short and
Very recently my son said to me, “Mama, I heard there’s a billionaire who lives on his own island. He’s so far away from his office so he has to take his plane to work every day!” He was so impressed with this picture. I felt the need to offer an alternative one. “Well,” I began, thankful for the true story I was about to share, “there’s also a billionaire who has given away his money, lives in the same house he’s had since before he was that rich, drives a simple car and travels economy on commercial flights.” My son looked at me and said, “Why?” I looked right back at him and said, “Because he chooses to use his money for other things. He’d rather use it to help people. He has what he needs, so the rest he puts back into the world for good.” My son was very quiet. Then he flashed me the biggest smile, full of sudden comprehension and light, and said, “Coooooool. So