Strange water. Thick. I can recall it even now. The more
it slipped off you the more it clung to you
so that the only sense of cleanliness you got
was in the decision
- Jorie Graham, from "Imperialism"
It's that day of the year again, when we all get together and make a difference by blogging about making a difference. Once again, masses of people have flocked to the internet to support Action. And there are so many actions you can take. Just close your eyes and click a link. You don't even have to be all that creative. Plenty of people have already thought up truly wonderful and fun ways of fighting poverty--all you needed to do now is send money. There's even a way that you can shop poverty into extinction! Isn't that nice?
Certainly I'm not against political activism--I believe we should be more intensely involved in the shaping and evolving of the communities in which we live, of course I do. But once again, for the second year in a row, I find myself wondering if sometimes for all our buzzing and concentrated efforts, we're mostly like the proverbial fly at the window pane.
So, on Blog Action Day, this is my personal suggestion for how to make a difference: choose poverty.
That's right. It's a very simple solution, so obvious it verges on ridiculous. But after all, on a finite planet with limited space and resources, the price of one person's prosperity is another's poverty. And if this is the case, surely the reverse must also be true: if you want others to have more, then start by having less for yourself.*
With that in mind, I present to you:
FIVE EASY STEPS TOWARDS VOLUNTARY POVERTY
Name Your Fears
What are you so afraid of? If you had to give up everything you own, what would the nightmare of poverty look like to you? If you had to settle for making only half of your current yearly salary--what changes would you have to make? Which of those changes frighten you the most, and why? Are you afraid of losing respect, independence, social influence? Are you afraid of being unable to meet even your most basic needs? Are you afraid of being unable to put money away for the future in case you lose your job or develop health problems? Don't analyze or justify your fears--for now, just name them.
Name Your Dreams
Many people living in the West today (especially in America) are hung up on the American Dream--the house with the big yard, the kids, a dog or two, the car in the garage. The simple fact is, this dream is unfeasible. There is no way that the finite resources of this planet would be able to sustain even a fraction of the current human population if everyone really lived this way. Hey, life's not fair. By stubbornly clinging to such a dream, you tacitly accept and support a system that keeps much of the world in extreme poverty. And the truth is, plenty of people "living the dream" aren't all that happy anyway. So forget the "American" Dream. Name your dreams. What is it that you really want out of life? Friendship, family, freedom, excitement, stability, amusement, satisfying work, aesthetic stimulation, intellectual stimulation? Again, don't analyze or justify. Just name them. Make a list, even. Imagine a perfect life--not what you own, but what you do and why. Understand your daydreams of prosperity as well as you understand your nightmares of deprivation.
Now, begin to ask yourself what you would really need in order to fulfill your dreams and avoid your fears. Don't expect anyone else to come to your rescue, least of all indifferent multinational corporations trying to sell you something. If you want to be healthy and are afraid of being unable to afford adequate health care, seek out inexpensive ways to take active steps towards better health and disease prevention, rather than focusing on expensive treatments down the road. Avoid expensive, processed foods that are bad for you and fill your diet with fresh produce, simple whole grains, beans, nuts and soy. Go out in the fresh air to walk or jog regularly. Have a cup of herbal tea each night before bed (plenty of herbs have health benefits, and you can grow them for yourself in your own windowsill or backyard--not to mention, it's a nice way to relax and unwind, detox from stress and too much caffeine). If you find yourself bored or frustrated with your work or your social relationships, don't escape into movies, television or video games. Try making something, creating something new--either art or crafts, or new friendships and relationships with those around you.
Also, do research. Look into other cultures from all over the world and throughout history. Our current industrial-consumerist culture has only been in existence for the past two or three centuries at the most. Explore and find out how people managed to survive and even thrive in cultures that were vastly different from your own, and see which ideas and lifestyle choices you can incorporate to meet your needs and fulfill your dreams.
Patterns are everywhere, in behavior and attitudes, your own and others'. Learn to notice them. The next time you hear someone complain about "welfare queens," for instance, ask yourself if the kind of attitude of entitlement without effort is not just as prevalent in the upper classes of invested and inherited wealth. If an attitude is considered "dangerous' or improper among the lower class but is praised as reasonable and even admirable among the upper class, be wary. Before you criticize the person begging for change on the street because "he'll just waste it on alcohol or drugs," ask yourself if you don't do very much the same thing with your own earnings, investing in goods and services that give you a sense of relief, ease, or comfort without actually increasing the quality of your life (I was amazed when my mother once told me, "health insurance is the best way to stay healthy"--I thought taking care of yourself was how you stayed healthy, and insurance was a kind of hypothetical safety net that, if you were lucky, you threw away thousands of dollars on but never had to use).
Also, pay attention to your own patterns of behavior and response. Each time you go to purchase something or spend money, ask yourself which of your fears and which of your dreams does the purchase reflect. Don't skimp. Make more lists, if you like. Be familiar with your fears and dreams so that when a company attempts to play on them and use them to convince you of a purchase, you can resist and rely instead on the choices of your rational mind. If part of your dream is to live a life of ethical choices that do not harm or exploit others (which I certainly hope it is!), then make the effort to discover the effects of your purchase choice. What kind of company sells the product, how is it made, who benefits and who doesn't? Will your purchase help others realize their own dreams, or will it keep them in a cycle of scarcity and fear? Would you want someone to make an apathetic choice if it was your dreams and happiness riding on the decision? (The answer to that one should be, "No.")
Spend Less, Give More
Hopefully, after going through the long, soul-searching process of steps one through four, you're exhausted and fed up. Good. That's part of the point. Being a consumer is an exhausting and horrendous waste of time. After worrying so much about who made my clothes and what nasty pollutant by-products the manufacturers released, seeking the least of apparently many evils--finally, I gave up and just stopped buying clothes altogether. What do I need new clothes every season for, anyway? Being more careful of how I wash and mend clothes, shrugging off social pressures to wear current trends and colors that match perfectly and never fade--I haven't had to buy new clothes in about five years. I still sometimes indulge myself in some new blouses and slacks made from organic cotton and hemp, dyed with natural clay or using other environmentally-safe methods. Obviously, I can't just stop eating, but I have learned to eat less, and to eat foods that give me the most "bang" for my buck--nutrient rich, organic and well-balanced. I stopped saving up for a car, because owning a car would mean not just the one-time expense of the purchase, but the on-going expenses of insurance and fuel, not to mention the environmental and health costs (instead, I walk almost everywhere, and when I can't, I use public transportation).
The flip side of spending less is giving more--more of yourself, more of your time and talents--and giving it generously, without expectation of return. This spirit of generosity, a core value to the ancient Celts, keeps wealth circulating freely through a community without the necessity of fear and scarcity-driven economics. In the time I save not having to work longer hours to meet higher budget needs, I'm able to carve out more leisure time for shared simple pleasures--walks in the park (to share the freely-given company of nature), reading and rereading good, inexpensive books (sharing the writer's insights and ideas, then discussing them with others and generating our own to give back), creative writing and blogging (that I can't seem to give away fast enough, though it rarely earns me anything), and social time with friends (sharing laughs, ideas and support). My productivity of useful, meaningful work has gone up, as well as my sense of well-being and enjoyment; not only am I able to do more with my time, free from stress and worries, but I am able to give of these activities more freely and feel that they are valued and valuable in themselves, regardless of their price.
*All right, well, it's not that simple, maybe. Economists (pesky things) would say that wanting more is precisely what drives us to create as well as acquire. If we don't hoard our money and material goods, there won't be any reason for others to produce those goods for us, so production goes down and we're still left with the poorest class lurking at the bottom of a stagnated circulation of wealth. But this view is based on the assumption that producing more is always an unquestionable good. Clearly, in a society churning out more kinds of cell phones than there are species of snail, the mere quantity of items being produced has very little to do with meeting the basic needs of the population. Instead, I think of it more like a pond full of algae. Without any way of keeping the superfluous production of unnecessary goods in check, the top layer of algae floating on the pond's surface thickens and spreads until no light at all can penetrate into deeper waters to help sustain the life there. Soon, everything in the pond dies except that muck of algae. But if the surface layer remains thin enough, light can penetrate, sustaining plant life, fish, frogs and all sorts of wonderful creatures living below the surface.
All right, it's not a perfect metaphor. For instance, in a pond, animals can keep algae proliferation in check by consuming it, whereas I'm suggesting just the opposite--to decrease our consumption of unnecessary goods, those luscious luxuries floating along the rich upper layers of our culture. On the other hand, our economic ecosystem is so out of whack that there may be no suitable natural metaphor available. In a more balanced culture, basic needs could be met without having to completely reject the modest pleasures afforded by the "algae" of art, sports, spiritual pursuits, and social entertainment. We could nibble on the succulent greens without worrying that it threatened to deprive us of the very light and oxygen we needed to survive. But this is not a balanced culture. It is, in fact, far out of balance and growing ever more so.
So if you want to make a difference, if you believe in social mobility and the circulation of wealth, then it's easy enough to find a real solution, a positive action towards a whole new way of living, rather than the limited reaction of offering ten dollars charity money here or there when the need seems greatest. Choose poverty. Choose, in other words, to stop, to step out of the thick, strange water of consumerism and find a better way.