On Relative Wealth
Are you wealthy?
Why do you think you are/n’t wealthy?
If you need a moment to think about your answers, that’s fine. I’ll wait.
Ready? Good. If I’m right (and I think I am) your answer to the second question involved a comparison. You looked at someone else’s state of wealth or poverty and decided where you sit in comparison to that other person or people. This very neatly demonstrates that wealth is not a binary, on/off sort of thing. There is no one, magical number where once your net worth exceeds that number you are now officially, objectively wealthy. Certainly economists, and policy makers have created such lines but they are clumsy and don’t really capture the lived reality of the people involved.
Something I find very interesting is in the area of charitable donations. I myself have gone through the mental exercise of saying “well we can’t afford to donate money now, but when we have more money then we’ll be able to give.” Only to find that when we did have more money, we didn’t feel that much richer and the things we were spending that ‘new’ money on seemed to be just as necessary as anything else. What’s more is that there will always, always be someone richer than you. So you can always, always point to that person and say “Them! They’re wealthy, not me.”
To avoid making that sort of mistake I’ve been making an effort to ‘face the poor.’
To explain what I mean by ‘face the poor.’ Imagine, if you will, a long line of people arranged in order of their wealth. At one end the very richest, and at the other the very poorest, and you are somewhere in the middle (you may be closer to one end than the other, but you’re still somewhere in the middle).
Now imagine that you physically turn to to face the wealthiest people. Suddenly it’s as if all the people behind you aren’t there anymore, and you are poorest person you can see. You see all the things that the wealthier people have that you don’t. You feel sorry for yourself, you feel jealous, you wonder why they have such nice things and you don’t. It makes you selfish, and insatiable. It makes you want to spend money you don’t have. Living within your means feels like an enormous burden or sacrifice. I think western society very much teaches us to turn our faces towards the wealthy. Celebrity worship, lifestyles of the rich and famous, even the real estate pages in the newspaper are among the obvious examples of this. The insatiable need for more things this fixation creates helps goad people into spending more and more money.
Now imagine that you’ve turned the other way, to face the poorest people. Again, it is as if all the people behind you aren’t there anymore, but now you’re the wealthiest person you can see. You see people with so much less than you have, and you feel compassion for them. You see people who work just as hard (if not harder) than you and get so little reward for it. You also see people who are not only getting by with less, but are thriving and happy; they aren’t people to pity, they’re people to emulate. Your desire for things decreases, and suddenly living within your means is far easier than it used to be. You even begin to see many of the status symbols you once wanted as little more than burdens.
I think it is fairly obvious which of the two orientations is spiritually, emotionally, and even financially healthier. But I think it is also obvious which of the two requires, not necessarily more effort, but more mindfulness. Simply avoiding the effects of all the wealth oriented media and social pressure around us is no mean feat. That said, a large concern I have about efforts to turn anyone’s thoughts (mine included) towards the poor is being careful to do so in a non-exploitative way. A way which doesn’t turn into poverty porn. Turning my thoughts towards the poor in such a way that doesn’t put me in the role of a benevolent savior, while relegating other people to being mere props in the story of my altruistic adventures.
So what do you do? How do you turn to face the poor?
 This boundary shifting technique is used to great effect by people engaging in racist or sexist behaviors. They can always point to someone more racist or sexist than themselves, and declare themselves to not be a racist or misogynist because ‘I’m not like those people.’ All the while they’re saying or doing very offensive things.