In last week’s piece, I wrote about what I might do in the world if I had a lot of access to resources while having the same values, sensibilities, and beliefs that I have now.
In answering that question, I skipped over the major issue that values, sensibilities, and beliefs are not neatly divorced from access to resources. Had I been born into wealth, or even acquired it individually, I would most likely have become a different person. Conversely, with my existing way of being, it’s very unlikely that I would acquire wealth or hold on to it if it came to me. Still, this is a thought experiment, and such stories do happen. The most likely scenario: I was born into or acquired wealth, and I have gone through some awakening or personal change, maybe through loss or confrontation, that transformed me into the person that I know myself to be in this real life.
Before I would ever be able to do the things I wrote about last week, I would need to be able to face the reality of my situation, and come to a new version of myself where the outside and the inside are aligned.
I’ve never been surprised by the fact that alcohol and drug use tend to increase in higher-income individuals. Many reasons are cited in the places where I have looked, starting with easy access to money, and including the challenge of separating a sense of self and relationships from the association with the money that is so integral to the identity of the family.
What I haven’t seen, and seems critical to me, is that alcohol and drugs can be a response to a moral and spiritual challenge, not just material or emotional. Simply put: knowing that my needs are met and prioritized in relation to other people’s needs is an enormous struggle for the human soul. Looking at it directly, without numbing ourselves, without justifying it through the notions of “deserving”, and without any denial, is probably beyond most people’s capacity. It just makes sense to me that there would be a real incentive to medicate that gap, to obliterate that pain. That incentive appears to me as one more powerful reason alongside those usually mentioned.
Although I am not wealthy in this current life, I, too, like most people living in the Global North, also have my needs prioritized, primarily through access to consumption options that are available on the backs of invisible people and nature. For example, although I personally aim to reduce and reduce my consumption of things that come from a distance or are produced in exploitive conditions, I know, even without knowing the details, that much of what I consume still does depend on massive exploitation of people and nature. I am haunted by that knowledge, and by its scale, way beyond my personal life. I do not in any way justify it to myself. I only mourn as much as I can, and recommit, again and again, to conscious and clear choice. That choice, for me, is based on the core purpose of my life: to contribute as much as I can to the possibility that our species will find its way back and forward to alignment with our interdependence with all of life. I weigh things. I fly a lot, for example, and I continue because when I take into consideration what I do in the places I fly to, I find more peace.
Now, to imagine that I am someone who, directly through running a large corporation, or indirectly through inheritance, has participated in creating the conditions of the kind of exploitation that is rampant in our world, that’s a different scale from what I have visceral familiarity with. I truly don’t know, can’t imagine, how I would find internal peace. In a rare moment when I had an opportunity to talk with someone who was then holding a vast amount of power in a very large global corporation, I asked him exactly that question. We had been building trust for some time, and I felt free to take the risk: Given that he has the capacity to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, I almost wondered out loud, why doesn’t he? His response drove home the point for me. One part was “She’s right”, and the other part was “She doesn’t understand.” It’s the former that I speak of here: the part, often buried deep within, that knows that we are doing something that goes against life, against our hearts, against our humanity, against our evolutionary imperative to care for and be part of life.
So what would I do? Perhaps some of you wonder if I would simply give away all my wealth. The answer is no; not in a simple way. What I would do is the very same thing that I did a few years ago and that I continue to do periodically. I would think from scratch what are truly needs of mine, and what are simply habits. I would do this across the board, at every level of my life: housing, food, support, and everything else that makes up a human life. This would not be a one-time deal. In this scenario, I am, after all, coming from years, maybe generations, of being used to comfort, ease, and access to pleasures without any thought or effort. It would take many iterations, I imagine, to reach beyond the habits, the attachments, and the fear of scarcity that would likely prevent me from seeing possibilities right away. It may take a few years to reach true alignment, so that my choices about consumption and lifestyle fully reflected my needs and my values.
I would also look closely at where the money is coming from, not only where it’s going. If I personally am the owner of a business, how am I running it? Will I want to keep running it, or support it in converting into a worker-owned cooperative that’s run in a truly collaborative, purpose-driven, and needs-based form? How much more than the people lowest on the pay scale would I be willing to earn? And if my income is purely financial, I would want to look at where my money is invested. Are those companies and financial institutions aligned with my values? Would I want to pull my money away from where it’s invested and manage it in an entirely new and radical way? I can also imagine that I would choose to leave it alone where it is, and focus on what I am doing with it, knowing that I cannot change everything, certainly not at once.
One of the results of this kind of exercise is that by aligning my consumption with my vision and values for myself, I am likely to have even more resources than before. More, then, to think about and find the most effective use of them in service to what matters to me.
The other piece I left for today was the relational part. It’s one thing to give my material resources to causes that I believe in. It’s a whole other thing to consider how I might transform the ways that I interact with my human environment. If I truly wake up into the person that I know myself to be, then I would be on fire to create transformation around me, exactly the way I do now, except in different circles.
For several years, I taught a program I called “Leveraging Your Influence Using Nonviolent Communication”. It was, in part, a response to my realization that everyone has a sphere of influence, and that the key to living a fully powerful life was about how we engaged with what influence we had; not about how we could have more influence. This holds true for a migrant farm worker no less than for the president of the US. The size of our sphere of influence has a lot to say about the ripples of what we do. The president of the US clearly has a wider sphere of influence, immensely so, than the migrant farm worker. However, scale is not the only significant variable. When I look at the present US president, my current assessment is that he is not engaging in a fully empowered way. He doesn’t strike me as having a lot of access to true choice instead of knee-jerk reaction, and I see him exhibit hardly any capacity to maintain collaborative relationships.
How we engage with our sphere of influence says a lot about something we rarely measure and which I find hard to put in words. All I know is that when choice and true collaboration are at the heart of action, I have more confidence in the long term positive effects of the action. That’s the kind of power I want all of us to have. Not having these powers, to me, makes Donald Trump more dangerous, precisely because of the scale of effects, which means that the consequences of his choices may be devastating for the entire biosphere for a long time. Conversely, the migrant farm worker can have these powers within their far smaller sphere of influence, and create beneficial effects within a community or family or village. We all know examples of community leaders who have, through their love and courage, inspired large groups of people to mobilize.
As the person with wealth that I am in my imaginary scenario, the same holds true for me. The risks of acting with full choice and integrity are no smaller just because I would have access to wealth. I know enough people who grew up with wealth to know that the rules of conduct are strict and unforgiving. At the same time, I likely have far less influence than those without my wealth believe I have. Individuals can always be cast away. For example, when CEOs of companies move in the direction of more collaboration, more respect for the environment, more transparency, or higher salaries for employees, they run the risk of being fired, which has been known to happen. When a senator, such as Elizabeth Warren, takes an uncommon stand, as she did when trying to read Coretta King’s letter during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Sessions, she was reprimanded and lost her place to influence the debate. Extremely few, if any, individuals within the world have enough power and enough influence that they can singlehandedly change the course of history, for better or for worse. I wouldn’t imagine myself to be one of those individuals.
This is one of the key wake up calls that I would no doubt have at some point on my journey: the humbling realization that I am not a solitary individual, and that the project of self-sufficiency is harmful to all, including myself.
The project of self-sufficiency, at its core, is about masking our inherent dependence on other people. One of the greatest losses to people with wealth, I tend to believe, is that so many of their relationships are reduced to exchange and so little of what they receive comes through true generosity and love.
Stepping outside of this fortress into the messy reality of human interdependence, and then using my power to inspire others to do the same, is a core contribution that anyone with any access to resources can do. It’s a relentless, never-ending path, because the forces that push us towards more and more isolation and separation continue to exist.
Whether or not we have access to wealth, with whatever resources we have and in whatever circles we travel, this is something all of us can do: align our actions with our values, even when it means stepping outside our comfort zone, and reaching out to others. Then we can begin, on whatever scale we operate, to revive our evolutionary design, and work with others on restoring our capacity to manage resources collaboratively for the benefit of all life.
Image Credits: top: headline at New York magazine. Below: image by The Fearless Heart.