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?