I had an epiphany this morning. Or at least an eye-widening insight. There’s a very good reason why so many spiritual leaders of past and present advise their followers to cast aside their worldly goods. Having an excess, or even a comfortable abundance, of wealth fundamentally affects your world view. And it separates us, one from another, in subtle, insidious ways.
I have a good friend who is far more affluent than I am. Very kind, very compassionate. Most of her other friends, at least those I’ve met, are similar. Intelligent, good-hearted, but live lives far beyond what I could ever hope to afford. I must emphasize that this does not affect our friendship. Or my opinion of them as good people. But it has given me a glimpse into a different world. A world made different solely by income.
The house is a mess, can’t keep up with the housework. Me: live with it, feeling ashamed when company comes over. Them: hire someone to clean for them.
The kitchen/bathroom/etc. is looking shabby from wear, or just seems due for a change. Me: move around the furniture, see if paint is on sale, or look for bargains at a yard sale or Dollar Store. Them: Buy whatever they need to redo the room; hire someone to do it if they are unable/unwilling to do the redecorating themselves.
Son graduates from high school. Them: Off to University, with perhaps a semester in Europe. Me: Get a job to help support the household, putting aside what he can to take the occasional class at the community college.
Vacation time. Them: Let’s see, Puerto Rico? Hawaii? Skiing in the Alps? Safari in Africa? Me: My younger son can housesit for them and their pets.
You get the point. And it isn’t that they are showing off their lifestyle. It seems normal for them. It’s what people do. And they think, Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford a fancier car, a bigger (second, nicer) house, our own jet, throw more extravagant parties, buy our kids better things, quit work and travel around the world, and so forth. Imagine how utterly out of touch the 1% must be? How completely alien the lives of those making minimum wage are to those who have never had to worry about affording anything except perhaps the next multinational corporation or presidential candidate they want to acquire?
I did live on minimum wage for awhile, did at one time have much less than I have now. I did not believe I would ever be able to afford a house, or a new car. Compared to where I once was, I am living in luxury. It’s as different as my life now is from the lives of my friends. And now, even though I am so much better off than I once was, I look at them wistfully and think, “I wish I could send my son to college. I wish I could go to Europe. I wish I could afford to buy some nice item of clothing just because I like it, not because it’s what was available at Goodwill.” Forgetting there are folks out there who wish they could have a house to live in, a good car to drive, and no worries about paying for their groceries.
Money changes everything. A bit more of it and you notch a level up, and that becomes your norm. Your eyes tend to drift upwards to the next level, not back down to where you were, or if they do, only with a shudder. It’s easy to forget what it is like being down there. Think how much harder it would be to relate if you’ve never had to stand in line for a meal at a soup kitchen, never been on food stamps, never had to just suck it up and live with something because you couldn’t afford to do any better?
The apocryphal “Let them eat cake,” could well have been said by a truly clueless member of a privileged class who honestly had no idea what it was like not to have that option. I wonder how many of those who say “Why don’t the poor just (fill in the blank)?” honestly don’t realize that the options that seem obvious to them simply aren’t available to those who have little or no money.
Why is it that people tend to hang out with those at their own level? Perhaps because it feels normal. These are people you can relate to, who have similar concerns (investments, retirement plans, tax shelters, what school to send their children to or where to take their next vacation; or, balancing childcare and job, keeping credit card debt manageable while still keeping up the payments on the car and making the rent, how to use leftovers to stretch grocery money). With a wide disparity of income, you aren’t going to the same restaurants, shopping at the same stores, buying the same gadgets and devices. A person whose income is very different can’t entertain you at their house the way you did them at yours. The person the next notch down can’t afford to buy the gifts you can afford. They can’t join you in your favorite recreations because they can’t manage the expense.
No matter how one strives for equanimity, the differences are real, pervasive, and have an unavoidable effect.
And we think we’re so clever and classless and free.