A meme caught my eye and I found myself thinking about its message: Really had my heart set on waking up rich today. Of course the idea of being wealthy is relative despite demographic brackets that provide numerical outlines to help us determine who is affluent and who is not. How we feel about our circumstances is often a better determinant of our financial value than our bank statements. We all know someone who has very little but is content, and others who should be comfortable who are never quite happy. The reality is that virtually everyone in the United States is richer than most of the people in other less prosperous places of the world, and as a matter of fact here in our country most of us enjoy existences that would have impressed even the very prosperous of bygone eras.
Recently I watched a program that featured the stories of immigrants who lived on London’s East End during the late eighteen hundreds. Many of them came from Russia as a result of economic hardships or political atrocities. They found themselves in an unfamiliar land without employable skills or facility with the language. They were forced to toil in sweatshops laboring for fourteen hours six or seven days a week just to barely survive. They were fined for the slightest of transgressions like talking while on the job, usually making their eventual pay quite meager. Conditions were cruel made even more so by the competition for back breaking employment that might end at any moment. Many a wretched soul died from malnutrition, disease, exhaustion, injuries, or violence. People who lived in the East End were thought to be stupid, lazy and prone to criminal natures. The wealthy and those in the middle class rarely saw them as equal humans, and often enjoyed taking guided tours to the slums to gawk at the life styles of the unfortunate poor, but rarely to actually help them. Life in the slums was brutal and demeaning, almost impossible for most of us to imagine. Even more incredible is the fact that such situations were commonplace only a little more than a hundred years ago, and still exist in many parts of the world.
We have our chronically poor, our homeless, and those who live in difficult circumstances even to this day, but generally there are programs designed to help them. Indigent children receive free or reduced price breakfast and lunch. We provide food stamps and welfare assistance for those in need. Even though such programs are far from perfect, they are more generous than the want that some of our ancestors experienced. For the most part we do indeed care for those who are lacking in the basics of existence. Education is free. There are ways of improving our stations in life. There is light at the end of poverty’s dark tunnel here in the United States, leaving room for optimism, and yet even among those of us who are above the poverty line there is often great dissatisfaction. The grass all too often appears to be greener and we find ourselves wishing for more.
There is certainly nothing wrong with working hard and achieving goals that allow us to feel more economically secure, but in our quest we should all allot enough time to enjoy and appreciate what we have rather than constantly wishing for more. The years go by far more quickly than we might imagine and all too often people find themselves running out of time to find contentment, especially if they have always measured it in terms of money and possessions. The real question becomes how much does anyone truly need to have a sense of security?
I was recently talking with a woman who would qualify as being poor by almost any standard, and yet her spirit is as bright and satisfied as anyone whom I’ve ever met. Her life is simple, uncomplicated and she lives modestly from paycheck to paycheck. She has learned how to stretch her finances to the maximum, and seems to take joy in playing the game of getting the most out of how little that she has. She lives in a low cost but nicely maintained apartment that is stocked with the appliances that she most needs, including a washer and dryer. She found all of her furniture at thrift stores and is quite proud not just of the low prices that she paid, but also of how well she put the disparate pieces together to create a warm and inviting environment. She is always on the lookout for bargains and items for which she might trade her skills or something that she no longer wants. For example she doesn’t travel anymore so she exchanged a suitcase for a rocking chair. She finds things in the dumpster that she repurposes, including plants that appear to be half dead but still have enough life in them to benefit from her green thumb. She gets the books that she reads from the library and uses bargain priced old clothing to create pillows and cushions for her decor. She clips coupons and creates low cost but healthy recipes. It’s a challenge to stay afloat, but instead of stewing over what she lacks she takes great pride in knowing how to stretch her pennies. For entertainment she volunteers at museums and reads each morning over a long cup of coffee. She remains one of the most upbeat individuals that I know even while living on the edge. She refuses to waster her time with worry, instead finding joy in the simplest of pursuits.
On the other hand, I also know of people who have great wealth but constantly worry about losing it. They have made themselves miserable with fear. They cling to their bank accounts wary of spending or sharing lest some unforeseen disaster befall them. The years tick by and they live like miserly hermits, ranting about those that they think might unfairly get handouts. Somehow like Ebenezer Scrooge they have lost their hearts and sometimes even their souls. They cannot see that most of us are the descendants of people who once struggled as mightily as the poor folks who lived in the slums of London’s East End. They avert their glances from thoughts of pain and suffering, isolating themselves from their very humanity.
Admittedly it would be nice to wake up to find that our bank accounts are full and that we will never again have to worry about the future, but even better is adopting an attitude of being happy regardless of our circumstances. At the end of the day the measure of our lives will be found in our relationships and the purposes for which we lived. In fact, research has shown that our longevity is more likely if we have spent our time being joyful social beings.
I woke up this morning and I wasn’t any wealthier financially than I had been last night, but as I glanced around my home I saw reminders of those special kind of moments that literally took my breath away. As I made my breakfast I thought of how wondrous each passing year has been and listened to my neighborhood coming alive. I realized that if truth be told I wake up rich every single morning because of the wonderful life I have been fortunate enough to live. It was comforting the know that I am so prosperous.