At a party at my home, I introduced my friends to each other. Annette, this is Barbara; Barbara, Annette. You have so much in common.
Annette was a talkative type. Right away, she began to tell Barbara about her life. Its so tough being divorced, isnt it? Annette said. I mean, money is so tight. My new house cost two hundred and seventy thousand dollars. I had to get financial help from my father. Its not that Daddy doesnt have it he just endowed a chair at a major university. But I hate to ask. Of course, I do have the alimony from Bill, my ex; but I dont feel that I should rely on that. Im putting it away for my retirementthats what my accountant says I should do. And the house that Bill and I built just wont sell. I dont know why. We spent nine hundred thousand dollars on that house, its absolutely perfect.
It doesnt matter so much to Bill if the house doesnt sell. Hes the vice president of a big bank in the city. But Im really struggling. I mean, I dont make much. Im just a music teacher. So, anyway, what Ive decided to do is build an addition onto my new house: a little apartment. I dont know where Im gong to come up with the money. Its going to cost sixty thousand. But, you know, its a tremendous investment in the long run. It adds to the value of the house. And Im going to rent it out, so then Ill have the rent every month to add to my income. Its worth it to scrape a little while Im having it built.
My friend Barbara sat silent. She had a smile fixed firmly on her face. I had never heard Barbara say anything unkind about anyoneever. She never said a word against Annette, either; but after the party, she told me she would prefer not to see Annette again.
You see, I had forgotten one thing: while Annette, who was worth several hundred thousand dollars, worried about whether she had enough to survive, Barbara was supporting herself and her teenage child on ten thousand dollars a year, which she earned by mopping floors and scrubbing toilets. And she never complained.
Before this, what had I thought about wealth? About poverty? I had grown up in comfort, never lacking for any material thingindeed, indulged in anything money could buy. I had known that there was a difference between me and most of the other children at the tiny rural school where I had gone as a child. But I had not realized that the difference had to do with money. Like many a young member of the upper classes, I did not know what I was.
Sitting with Annette and Barbara, I knew. I thought, Let me never take what I have for granted. Let me never complain about being poor, when I am really rich.
If you had asked Barbara if she was poor, she would probably have denied it. She would have said, I have a child who loves me. We have a house to live in. I have my health, so that I can work for my living. Sure, we have to get food from the Community Pantry sometimes, but we always have enough to eat. Im even able to scrape together enough to go to school, so that some day Ill be qualified for a better job which still allows me to take care of my emotionally troubled child. I have a family who cares about me. Im thankful to have so much.
Maybe I should take Barbara for an example? Maybe I should be grateful for what I havehowever much or little it is.
Let me tell you another story: I have a middle aged relative who lives alone in a large house. Mentally somewhat disabled, she does not work, but is supported by a large trust fund set up by her late parents. Though her life style is not opulent by North American standards, she is always beautifully dressed, well fed, and can afford to hire people to do any job she cannot, or does not wish to do herself.
One day my relative went to the supermarket (how much we take for granted)! Another friend of mine once hosted a professor from Russia. The professor was overwhelmed and enchanted by the small local supermarket. She exclaimed, In America, your markets are like museums! My relative, her eyes glazed and her feet sore after a long trip through the abundantly stocked aisles, decided to go to the flower case and pick out a refreshing bouquet for herself. In front of the buckets overflowing with big, richly colored roses stood an old Asian woman, who was silent as my relative selected her flowers. So cheap my relative thought. Only a dollar a stem! She chose a large bunch.
The other woman still stood there. Its hard to pick, isnt it? my relative said. Oh, I cannot buy any, said the old woman. Too expensive. I only like to come and look. They are so beautiful.
So this woman was grateful for the free beauty of flowers in a supermarket/museum. Was that all? Did she feel her poverty, in not being able to afford a one dollar rose? There are those who would argue that this woman was wealthier than my friend Annette, who has a great deal of money but feels always impoverished. In this case, my relative should not have felt any guilt or worry, but should have taken her flowers home and enjoyed them, secure in the notion that we must each simply be thankful for what we have, no matter how we came to have it. Or should my relative have offered to buy some flowers for the old woman? That is another popular solution: those who have more should make private donations to those who have less. Perhaps my relative should have put her own flowers back in the case, and donated her money to some worthy organizationone which fights poverty?
What am I to learn from all this? Surely it is good to be grateful for what we have. Like my friend Barbara, I am grateful in this minute for so much: the beautiful Vermont landscape outside my window, the fruits of my abundant garden, the house in which I live, my beloved husband, my job, my health, my friends. And yet it seems to me that as long as others do not have what I have, my gratitude is not enough. If others lack for beauty to see, good and wholesome food to eat, a home (or even a roof over their heads), love and friendship, work that rewards them, health and the care to maintain it, then my gratitude is just a beginning. A door to the next step. I can open that door of gratitude, and walk forward, doing what I can to help others achieve what I have. Or I can close the door. Then gratitude becomes complacency, and I am trapped.
Let me stop philosophizing for a moment, and tell you one more story: Once, I saved up my money all year long so that I could go to a workshop. The workshop took place at an institution that specialized in self actualization, spiritual exploration, natural healing and so forth. At this institution there were perhaps a few hundred people who had come to take workshops in pursuit of these vague but laudable goals. Among them I saw perhaps ten who were not white. Although it was more difficult to tell, I would guess that there were equally few who were not economically quite well-off. Although I come from the whitest state in the union I felt uncomfortable with this lack of ethnic and class diversity. Still, I quite enjoyed the workshop I was attending.
One night I was standing in the dinner line next to the person who was presenting the workshop, a woman of extraordinary power and charisma. She stretched her arms akimbo and proclaimed in a loud voice, Ah! Its good to be alive!
Something must have registered on my face. Perhaps I drew slightly away from her. I know that for the rest of the workshop, she looked faintly displeased with me. But you see, I was thinking, For you it is good to be alive. For me it is good to be alive. But what about the homeless person who is sleeping tonight in a public park? What about the person who has just discovered they have cancer, and have no health insurance to cover treatment? What about the residents of other, less wealthy countriesthe man who lives in a tin shed in Mexico, the woman who begs in the streets of Bombay? What about the children who are starving, and the mothers who cannot feed them? Just what do you mean, its good to be alive?!
I do not intend to be sanctimonious. I am a privileged, middle class person, who has had a very fortunate life. What I wish for is that everyone could have what I do. This is naive, I suppose. Idealistic, certainly. And what, after all, do I propose to do about it? Where is my plan, my solution to the poverty and hunger that plague the majority of the worlds population?
I am not arrogant enough to propose a solution. Others smarter, wiser, more politically shrewd, more religiously dogmatic, have proposed solutions since the beginning of time, it seems. I only know I cannot wish idly for others to have a better life. I must try to work for it in whatever ways I can. Otherwise, my gratitude becomes meaningless. I will have closed the door, and left the better part of humanity beyond it, sitting alone, gloating over my wealth like a miser, cut off from the love, learning and pain that are as essential to living as the material comforts I rejoice in, trapped in complacency. Then, I am very poor indeed.
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