“Poverty makes you sad as well as wise.”
One of the most enduring clichés in western mythology is that “everyone has problems” — both the powerful and the weak, both the privileged and the commoner, both the wealthy and the poor. Such a view is put forward to promote equality and social cohesion, but it’s one of those half-truths that lead to the acceptance of false ideas.
Here’s what is missing from the equation, so to speak, of how problems affect personal happiness. Not all problems are equal in nature, and it thus follows that not all the effects of the problem are also equal. Here’s a real-life example that I read about a number of years ago: A multi-millionaire—I have forgotten his name—was sad and bothered, even angry, at knowing that he had not yet made the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, the club of billionaires, like many of his friends and peers. To him and his spouse, this presented itself as a real problem that needed solving.
For the rest of us normal humans, this is narcissism and a over-weaning sense of entitlement. Compare that to a family of four who has not taken a vacation in almost ten years, who are driving a car even older than that and who have to carefully consider what they buy at the supermarket. They don’t needs billions, or millions, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to enjoy life without such financial worries; their needs can be met with a few thousand a month, at most. Which problem has the most effect, causing the most stress? I think the answer is clear, except for the narcissistic sociopath, of course, who values his needs far above anyone else’s.
One of the worst personal conditions one can face is to be stuck in a bad and terrible situation with no options. Money is usually the limiting or deciding factor of why this is often the case; without much of it, choices are thus limited—often leaving no other than the status quo. Brecht’s quote above does not apply to everyone; the life of penury and struggle for existence can drown you under a pile of misery, and leave little time for the type of reflection and consideration that leads to making good decisions.
This lack of control can also add more stress and shorten one’s life, says a recent article by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in the New York Times (“Status and Stress”; July 27th, 2013):
That sense of control tends to decline as one descends the socioeconomic ladder, with potentially grave consequences. Those on the bottom are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps most devastating, the stress of poverty early in life can have consequences that last into adulthood.Yet, those that can find the necessary time and energy might conceivably achieve a level and understanding and wisdom that evades the contented individual. Or the wealthy one.
Money makes life easier, no doubt, but not everyone has to means or ability to achieve some level of personal financial security, some degree of autonomy, some personal freedom. Lack of money does generally lead to less options, but as much as that is a limiting effect in our consumer society, having less can also mean choosing less. In an ironic way, this lack can make life easier, simpler, if that is the path can accept. Or another way to look at it is that the path has already been chosen for you by life’s often-unpredictable (and often-harsh) events—admittedly, not always a comforting thought when human individuality and free will are at stake. Some will accept their position and others will fight against it.
Although the comparisons are not perfect—as is often the case with such things—the similarities between the Great Recession today and the Great Depression of the 1930s are striking, noteworthy for their stories of individuals and families struggling to make ends meet. Few writers are better at describing such societal conditions in a story-telling way than John Steinbeck. In the introduction to his novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), published in the midst of the Depression, Thomas Fensch writes what has always captivated the American public in times like these:
And who, during the years of the Great Depression, couldn't be enchanted by Tortilla Flat? For many during the Great Depression, reading and the movies were escape, pure and simple, Escape from grinding poverty, escape from worrying about how to pay the rent, escape from worrying about how to find a job (or keep a menial one), even escape from worrying about where money for the next week’s groceries would come from. (viii)Does this sound familiar today? It might in the face of news that American law-makers have voted to effectively reduce its long-standing Food Stamp Program (a pilot program dating to 1939 and becoming permanent in 1964), which aids the poor, some 47 million Americans. For such affluent legislators, the reduction of such programs sends a disconcerting signal.