Wealth As Community, Time, and Freedom
I’ll be the first one to admit it: I value financial security and material comfort, I save for retirement, and I sometimes worry about finances.
But after reading Ben Hewitt’s book Saved: How I Quit Worry About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, I’ve been inspired to blog. Like Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, the text challenged me to ponder just how unsustainable the modern paradigm of constant corporate and economic growth is, urging us to examine what it means to be wealthy. Let’s consider community, time, and the freedom to think and act outside the realm of money as undervalued measures of wealth.
Valuing wealth based on massive accumulating of material goods and services is a historical anomaly for most of the world’s inhabitants, yet it has become the norm. Hewitt writes:
Of course, the economic and social arrangements we know today have scant historical precedence, and it was not long ago that our investments were not primarily fiscal in nature. We invested in property, to be sure, but also in less tangible assets, like trust and community. We understood that we could not stand separate from others in our communities, nor from the natural world that provided the foundational essentials for day-to-day survival.
If this doesn’t echo Wendell Berry, I’m not sure what does. Berry writes in The Agrarian Essays, “A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members – among them the need to need one another.”
Community membership offers measures of wealth, of course, that are vastly different than accumulation and six figure bank accounts. If you can trade handmade material goods or services with a neighbor, is that not a form of wealth? If you can strengthen relationships with others by borrowing tools, or counting on someone to feed your pets while away, is that not wealth? Hewitt contends that to be wealthy is to maintain interdependent relationships that allow us to skirt the impersonal transactions of corporate America.
We are all offered 24 hours in a day. No more, no less, no matter our lot. I consider myself wealthy in this regard, despite the fact that I have a demanding job as a high school teacher. I take active steps to ensure I work efficiently and have ample time at home, hours spent bow-hunting in the woods, and time to simply be, to relax, to read, to write. Hewitt writes, “Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend out time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth.”
I thought about this quote the other day, as I sat in the school cafeteria for an extra three paid hours for parent-teacher conferences and department meetings. Most of my colleagues said they’d rather be with their families, pursuing a hobby, or simply choosing how to spend their time. I was in complete agreement.
Hewitt’s most interesting idea regarding the modern wealth paradigm of material consumption is that it can detract our ability to be more mindful about the world around us, to be critical thinkers, to be artists, to feel unburdened from thinking about bills and acquiring more stuff. Consider this: if you spend all of your time working to earn money, then worrying about how you’ll spend, invest, and save your money, how much time is left over to think about other things?
“We tend to think of freedom in the context of flesh and blood, but of course our thoughts can be shackled too…How often, I wonder, do we deny ourselves the pleasure of offering our gifts to others, be they intellectual, artistic, or of pure toil? I can’t afford that, we say, and we believe it…” Hewitt continues.
This post probably doesn’t do these ideas justice, but I’m hoping to hear from y’all.
Is someone wealthy who has a 4,000 square foot house but is a slave to their mortgage payment, having to work 60-hour weeks to make house payments and fill up every room with furniture and gadgets? Is someone wealthy if they have a huge nest egg, but hasn’t been able to–or chooses not to–pursue hobbies or take vacations? To what extent do you value the aforementioned ideas as wealth? Is the old maxim “time is money” problematic in any way to you?
Sorry to have ranted. 🙂
It’s all a tradeoff — and Americans want liberty and happiness (as do we all) but forget the tradeoff of, oh yeah, your life in return. I think setting your priorities and sticking to them helps. I love being able to travel, and so other possessions matter less to me in exchange for that freedom. There’s only so much money, unless you are super-rich — and most of them are chained to their desks, phones and tablets 24/7 being Important and Indispensable for the price. Not for me.
I have no doubt your readers and students have much to think about here. Thanks for such a lucid post.
Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment!
Isn’t it crazy that for most people to acquire a basic need–shelter–they have to go into massive debt?
Sounds like you’ve got your lifestyle figured out so that you can still enjoy yourself but aren’t beholden to draining work and financial issues–hope I can say the same down the line:)
Thanks for the comment. It seems to me that unless students see and interact with people who value things other than materialism, advertising and media steers them in to believing that money and accumulation is the only way to go. It’s certainly tough to step outside the status-quo, that’s for sure, especially for young people.
I have found as I grow older, that having less “stuff” is freeing. I also find that I long for connections with friends, looking at the sky, and appreciating complete quiet. I am also so glad to have a “community” of friends and family to spend my life with and on whom I can rely. Did I come out of college with these same values? They were there I think, but I sure spent a few years more worried about accomplishments and accumulation for their own sake. Nice essay on what matters.
Feel free to make room on that soapbox! 🙂
As you know, this is also a matter of real concern for me as well. I earn barely 50% of what I made in 2006, (frustrating, yes), but I also no longer work for and around bullies or colleagues so miserable and depressed that I dreaded their company. I no longer chase stories that I not only personally meaningless but embarrassingly trivial — but which my bosses, all of them male and half my age, considered “news.”
I am writing this on the last day of a 5-day break in Florida and will fly to Nicaragua within 10 days of being home in NY. I still am not making a lot of money, but I am having, and savoring, a wealth of experiences that no mall visit or pile of shopping bags or huge empty house can possibly compensate me for. We live in a one-bedroom apartment and drive a 13 yr old vehicle, long since paid for. That allows us the freedom to save for retirement and renovate our home and eat food we enjoy and travel occasionally.
I would love a big home with a lot more room. But not the obligations and stress that would come with it.
I think much of contemporary consumption is mindless, fed by peer pressure, boredom and the lack of a lively private life — one that corporate masters are quite profitably happy to see us continue living.
It is a very conscious choice to eschew more/better/faster/newer for…what we really want and value instead.