Gracefully Embracing Poverty

I’ve been wrestling lately with how Amanda’s and my outlook on the coming crises we Americans face differs from that of many of our friends. I’m coming slowly to the conclusion that it may relate to a decision we made a few years ago to embrace poverty as gracefully as possible. We didn’t call it that then, but I think we can now.

During the coming decades, many of us are going to have poverty forced upon us, as the industrial food system declines, our supposed wealth collapses, and money generally becomes harder to come by and less important. Many of us will lose the jobs we thought were safe. Small businesses will close their doors in record numbers. Many of us will see our retirement nest eggs disintegrate as the value of publicly held companies declines. Many of us will wish to move to a smaller home that’s easy to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter but will find ourselves stuck because nobody who can afford it wants to buy our house. In short, many of us will be forced to get by on a lower standard of living.

Most of us will resist this new poverty fiercely and stubbornly. We will engage in mass cultural denial on a grand scale. This isn’t my fault, and it’s certainly not permanent. As soon as we can find out who did this and stop them, things will get back to “normal.” We will search eagerly for someone we can blame for these horrible conditions. It must be the Black President, or the women who have taken over the hospital, or the Latino workers who are cleaning out my septic tank. It’s the Jews. It’s the agnostics. It’s the Unitarians. It’s comedians. It’s organic farmers. It’s the Europeans.

There is another path, a more enlightened path, that we can travel. We need not defy the changes that are coming. We can choose to embark voluntarily on the journey we shall be forced to take. We can gracefully embrace poverty.

When I used the word “poverty” with Amanda the other day, her reaction was instructive. To her, and perhaps to many of us, the term “poverty” necessarily connotes misery as well. To Amanda, and perhaps to many of us, the term “poverty” means we don’t have a choice. Yet even Amanda, as soon as she said that, recalled the “vow of poverty” often taken by nuns and monks, who certainly can be said to have embraced poverty voluntarily. So, to clarify, when I use the term “poverty,” I mean the state of living on a lower scale. Using less energy, buying fewer gadgets and toys, traveling less and more simply, living in a smaller home, eating fewer calories and at less expense, and wearing less luxurious clothing. As I use the term, it can be forced upon us or embraced voluntarily.

Note that nowhere in my definition does the word “pain” appear. As you’re probably tired of hearing by now, Amanda and I are not into suffering. We seek to find ways to live comfortably, even as we simplify our living arrangements. So even though we choose to live in a 600 square feet apartment in our pole barn, that apartment is clean, cheerily appointed, and totally livable. Even though we rarely eat out or go to movies, we eat extremely well from the bounty of our garden and regularly enjoy movies from Netflix on our flat-screen TV. Sound system’s not bad either.

We citizens of the US have grown up in a culture that worships economic growth and depends for its very existence on convincing its citizens to spend money. As evidenced by President Bush’s admonition in the wake of 9-11 that we Americans should go to Disney World and enjoy life (apparently he never actually uttered the much-quoted words  “go shopping”), we tend to view the consuming of more stuff as our patriotic duty. It’s no surprise, then, that we greet with skepticism the notion that a person might choose to spend less money than he can. OF COURSE I am entitled to the best of everything. By golly, I worked hard, and I earned it.

In the abstract, we admire those who exercise financial discipline, and we even sometimes desire to emulate them. Our resolve breaks down at the level of specifics, however. I know money’s tight and I should eat what I already own in my refrigerator, but it’s so much easier and more fun to go to a restaurant. Yes, my old lawn mower is still running and could get the job done, but that shiny new zero-turn mower sure would make my life easier. I already have enough shoes, but there’s just nothing as exciting as wearing a new pair of shoes to a party, and they’re on sale!

Amanda and I have done a decent job embracing a simpler life on the farm. Where it breaks down for us is in our visits with our children and grandchild, who live TOO FAR AWAY in California. We may be stingy with our spending at Longleaf Breeze, but then we buy airline tickets, stay in hotels, eat out at nice restaurants, and pay for expensive outings in California. It’s not anybody’s preferred approach; both we and and our children would prefer that we lived closer together. But this is life as we know it at least for the time being, and we make do the best we can.

I guess my reason for bringing up our travel expenses is to say that embracing poverty isn’t about making draconian rules or depriving ourselves of any of life’s pleasures. It’s more about being attentive to the ways we can lower our living standards and remain happy. As should be painfully obvious to anyone reading this, Amanda and I are still figuring that out.

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