Did you assume I meant money?
Okay, fine, that’s what I wanted you to think. But stay tuned.
The “American Dream” depicts a vision of success often represented by homeownership, a nice car, and a steady income with which to purchase the food of our choice, regular entertainment, and hopefully even vacations abroad, followed by a comfortable retirement.
We can pursue this “dream” in moderation, exercising frugality and eschewing whatever our means would categorize as excessive consumerism. And, when necessary, as so many in our country experienced as a result of the recession (and vast numbers experience on a more routine basis) we can pare down to the bare essentials and learn to live far more humbly so as to make do, until, ideally, we achieve financial stability. This is typically what comes to mind when someone suggests we “live with less.” It can be done. (That is, putting aside entrenched patterns of poverty in the US and our growing income inequality, which warrants a completely different discussion).
What if I instead suggested that we live with less meaningful connection to family? With fewer close friendships? What would it mean for us to purposely reduce our connection to community? Not as a result of clinical depression or debilitating anxiety, but as a matter of principle, based on values.
In other words, the belief that money is more important than people.
This is where I think, ‘well, of course, some people do actually believe this.‘ Such a perspective appears to be a dominant value in some circles, despite the existence of research showing that once a certain level of financial security is achieved, and all basic needs are met, further wealth accumulation does not increase happiness. Right? Because money does not nourish us the way that living beings do. Knowing this, I suspect that deep down, those who believe that wealth is life’s highest achievement may also be suffering from a poverty of love.
The portrayal of material values are everywhere we look. Many of us buy into this culture of consumerism and behave in ways that hint at material wealth as the pinnacle of success. Now, I imagine most people would shy away from saying outright that reducing human connection is their goal (I say ‘most people’ because, in this vast sea of humanity, there must be some who prefer isolation, for any number of reasons – and of course, introverts will always need frequent alone time to replenish their energy), but in effect, when we place a higher priority and primary focus on continual material achievement, we are necessarily placing a lower priority and less focus on deepening relationships. I think our culture pressures us to believe we “have” to pursue wealth in order to live well.
To be fair, I do believe that there are many people whose large fortunes were made without forgoing the importance of nurturing human connection, but I do question whether their relationships could have possibly been strengthened in any authentic way by their materialistic pursuits. I suspect they were more likely weakened, or at least put on the back burner for a time, rather than nurtured in a mutually supportive way. This is not to say that they were ill-intentioned or uncaring, and in fact, many are certainly great philanthropists. Yet it isn’t hard to find examples to confirm that the very wealthy are far from immune to emotional suffering and loneliness.
So, while I do have a wish to live in relative ease and comfort, over the years I have shifted my beliefs about what that means. In times of uncertainty and stress, what I want most is to have supportive connections with people I love. I also want to be there for them in meaningful ways. These social connections are literally life sustaining. I learned, over time, that for me, the competitive, highly compensated corporate environment in which I was working did not facilitate that in my life. It left me little time, energy, or depth to connect meaningfully with those I cherished. It also kept me routinely tethered to electronic devices, a tangible barrier to more nuanced personal connection.
This insight came to me in sharp relief a few years ago. I had what I later realized was a transformative experience in one of the largest slums in Africa, when I was, ironically, making a corporate salary and could travel there quite comfortably. A neighbor had connected us with her Kenyan cousin who does community work in Kibera, and Jack took us on a walk through the maze of shacks and shopping stands.
What struck me like a beautiful brick to the head was the immensely palpable joy emanating from that community. And a community it was. Jack told us about how they had addressed intra-community crime by forming groups of families who pooled their money and collectively funded whatever was most needed within that circle, be it medical care, school fees, uniforms, or food. How they watched one another’s children. How we could have literally walked through there with our wallets on our heads, and not feared having them stolen. This, in a city where I witnessed a closed jeep window being popped open and an iPod being stolen out of my wife’s hand while we were riding to the airport (albeit in virtually standstill traffic).
In Kibera, there was music, there were people conversing with excitement, there were children laughing, there were smiles on nearly all of the faces we encountered. No one asked us for handouts. What Jack had explained to us was that his work was focused on improving the quality of life for these ~750,000 people living within one square mile with no plumbing or electricity and deadly train tracks running through its center. He had described, and we saw, that a fair number of those who had been able to obtain an education now worked outside of Kibera, yet continued to live there because they loved the community. They wanted to contribute to lifting it up.
Were they lazy? Far from it! Their community was still striving. They wanted better living conditions, medical care, education, even the ability to join a soccer team. And yet, they already lived joyously. They found joy in their families, their friends, their deep community bonds. In living. They were grateful for what they had, not bitter about what they did not. They recognized the value of lives filled with love. They could transform that into laughter. Their lives were hard, but their hearts full.
Did they feel entitled to more? Did they resent those who had more? Jack didn’t think so. They admired and aspired. They worked to better themselves and their neighbors. They combined their efforts. And in doing so, they felt connected and protected and encouraged.
I have heard from other travelers that it is not uncommon to encounter such visible joy within poverty stricken communities in developing countries. Perhaps they have not yet been tainted by the descent into materialistic capitalist greed and fierce competition, that runs rampant here in the US.
It was hard to come back to the corporate world after that trip, and I resigned less than three years later. I became more willing to live with less, materially. I wanted the time and energy to focus on living more soulfully. Some people can do both; I chose not to. For me, this is what life is all about. I strive most strongly to cultivate the human connections that sustain me. And I feel richer for it.
What matters most to you in your life, and how do you prioritize it?