Poverty, Alcohol Theft, Wealth, Who Cares?
Poverty & Wealth
Sometimes seemingly disparate events bring the same thing to mind. Is that the Universe trying to bring something to one’s attention or an element of one’s unconscious attempting to become conscious. Does it matter? Perhaps what matters more what one does with the prompting than its origin. So in light of my present pestering perception, I’m going to spend some time collecting my thoughts how both lack and excess can get in the way of human flourishing.
Poverty is a slow death, killing the spirit before the body. If you’ve ever had your card declined at the grocery store due to insufficient funds, you know something of this truth. If you don’t consider driving around on bald tires that big of a risk, because you’re worried if you’ll have enough to pay rent, then you get it. Not having enough doesn’t just mean food insecurity or eviction. It means emotional and physical insecurity as well. How many people who’ve had their cards declined at my register look me in the eye afterwards? None. It’s too humiliating. How many people can’t sleep because they’re stressed about their paycheck, so they tuck themselves in with a toddy? Too many.
—— A brief interlude about alcohol theft ——
At the Trader Joe’s store where I work, people will regularly steal half of my day’s wages worth of alcohol. Sometimes a full day if they’re bold. They walk in, beeline to the booze, grab a bottle or two, and walk out. It’s that easy.
I’ve heard some of the staff say some unkind things about our bottle bandits. However, I don’t blame them for taking our Tito’s. A bottle of vodka offers a temporary respite from reality and affords a modicum of community when shared. Who doesn’t want that?
To corporate TJ’s, it’s not worth losing brand image by locking up the liquor, so they’re willing to take the loss. Assuming the industry average grocery store profit margin of 2.2% and a weekly revenue of $600k per store, the 506 TJ’s stores net the company over $347,000,000 a year. Losing a few bottles of liquor isn’t going to break their piggy bank. Also, I bet the actual margin is higher than 2.2% when you factor in alcohol sales and TJ’s non-typical approach to sourcing groceries.
I guess at some point you can afford to care more about appearances than reality.
—— Now back to your irregularly scheduled programming ——
Just as poverty is a killer, I think there is a point at which people begin to lose themselves in their wealth. It’s easy to point the finger at rich, white men blasting themselves into space in penis rockets (I mean this is the purest psychoanalytic sense) for a price that could end hunger for millions of humans, relocate climate refugees, or fund telomere research. It’s easy to say, they have too much and it’s gone to their heads. However, I’m not sure it’s best to define wealth on a global scale. Doing so is inherently competitive, turning high-school nerds into adult jocks comparing rocket sizes (1).
For most people, their definition of wealth has scaled with their life experience. As a child on a weekly one dollar allowance, a twenty dollar bill was a goldmine. In college, I can recall switching from thinking in $10 increments to thinking in $100 increments. My various work experience has offered me opportunities to think in increments of small millions. At present my definition of “wealthy” would be financial independence plus a few grand, so roughly an interest generating net worth of $2,000,000.
My monetary definition of wealth has consistently been defined by some denomination greater than my current operational paradigm. From this perspecitve, wealth is ever illusive, exiting ever beyond my current financial state.
And that doesn’t even take into account the Joneses!
Defining wealth globally in terms of comparative net worth and defining wealth individually as the “that which I do not yet have” are both quantitate definitions of wealth, relying on some metric or scale for their basis. But what if we operated from a definition of weath that was qualitative?
Doing so is much more difficult, as you can’t rely on a tax bracket to let you know if you’re wealthy or not. “Once I have… then I’ll…” logic begins to fumble. A qualitative definition of wealth raises the question of contentment and does not allow one to adhere personal well-being to a number. Defining wealth qualitatively requires the deep, soul searching work of determining what really matters to you, opening up the category of wealth beyond personal assets.
I’ve heard one definition of wealth as, “the freedom and capacity to be generous” (2). I take capacity in this sense not to mean excess funds, but rather the psychological capacity be able to part with that which one possesses without causing regression into a more primitive developmental state. To have enough of a sense of self that adhesive identification with one’s assists is no longer a necessary self-defense mechanism. To be differentiated enough to understand that while one’s possessions indeed shape them, they need not define them. To have the capacity to live with the amorphous, ambiguity of reality, without employing a rigid, perfectionistic “harder, better, faster, stronger” up and to the right approach.
I once had a mentor say “ministry happens in the margins”. If you’re always rushing from one thing to the next, when will you have time to help someone who needs a ride? This is true not just of our time, but also of our finances and of our psyches. Not needing to look at price tags at the grocery store means you can buy someone a meal if they need it. Doing the work of psychotherapy, becoming a person (3), helps one shed the defense mechanisms that keep them from relational connection, increasing relational and creative potential.
In a year’s time, when I am building my practice, I hope to design my life with more margin than present circumstances allow. Yes, I’ll have more financial margin due to increased earrings. But wealth to me also includes having the time and capacity to help people fix flat tires, engaging the detailed work of cooking good food, and buying someone lunch out of kindness not showmanship. So, I plan to only work 4 days per week once my client load allows, even though doing so means it will take me longer to save up to buy a house (4). This is quite a luxury.
I’m still working out my definition of wealth, and it may change over the years. However, I desire it to be expansive enough to encompass more than the sum total of my assets, to include a frame for my capacity as a Self to engage & create beauty, and to be infused with an understanding of relationality.
I would not be surprised if over the next few decades we witness shifts in quantitatively defined wealth like never before seen. Although quantitative poverty is decreasing globally, such economic shifts will likely leave many penniless. My hope is that as each of us engages the work of personhood and sheds psychic defense structures, will also see a shift in how we collectively define wealth. I hope that a more sophisticated, qualitative definition emerges, viewing wealth not as isolated individual collections, but rather as a perichoretic, interconnected state of being.
I hope these thoughts have been slightly more than entertaining. If you create your own personal definition of wealth, I’d like to hear it.
—— Footnotes ——
(1) A dramatic oversimplification, for sure. This is also not an essay on how pushing technology to the extreme creates lifesaving innovation for the masses. I get that NASCAR is why we have seatbelts. And I’m definitely pro-technology. Especially in the financial space. The purpose of this writing is for my future self to have something to fall back on in the event that I win the lottery and have excess that keeps me from flourishing. So, as the say, “to the moon!”
(2) Charles Eisenstein in “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible”. I think. Could be “Sacred Economics” or on some podcast interview.
(3) Neville Syminton’s in “The Psychology of the Person”, one of the books on my “Required Reading” list.
(4) Seattle housing prices have me contemplating alternatives to the standard housing market system, like buying land and building something myself, as county codes allow.