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Poverty Conscious?  Get Over It!

money spiralIt is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”    Matthew 19:23-26

This was the mantra, apparently a quote from Jesus himself, which my husband Stephen had drilled into him in catechism class by Catholic nuns who had taken a vow of poverty.  The lesson he took with him?  That virtue equals poverty—an interesting message to get from one of the wealthiest institutions on the planet!

I was brought up in a secular Jewish home in which education and professionalism were worshipped.  Money was an afterthought and it was gauche to put a priority on it.  So I became a doctor and studiously avoided meaningful discussions about money.

When we moved 10 years ago to live in more harmony with the natural world, we landed in one of the financially poorest counties in the United States.  Obviously, financial gain was not at the top of our criteria for choosing this place.  This county also has the highest per capita number of non-profits, most of which are grossly underfunded.

And here’s the interesting irony:  the scarcity mentality (or poverty consciousness), which we conflate with virtue, makes it almost impossible to be effective at anything important.  I have friends who have to haul water to cook and wash because they can’t afford indoor plumbing; yet they have started and run 501(c)3 non-profits.  They do remarkable work.  But don’t you think that, if they were more focused on taking care of their own needs, they might also have even better skills for effecting their chosen mission?

There’s a spiritual richness in this community, and a supportiveness and generosity.  People are very eager to support the underdog or the downtrodden and they’ll show up in droves to a fundraiser to support an ill artist or the family of an injured person, even if they barely have two nickels to rub together themselves.

And I see a vibrant drive for freedom, for spiritual seeking, for an unencumbered existence.  Yet I see the same seekers struggling to find the next free housesit or to pay for the emergency health care or car service that they didn’t expect to need.   My only discomfort with this community is that there is, perhaps, less tendency to support the rising stars among the community. That makes it harder for young people (or motivated adults) to move up, and it subtly encourages many to avoid success, lest they lose their support network. Every ray of light also casts a shadow.

Underlying it all seems to be an odd mix of 4 factors:  optimism, arrogance, self-deprecation, and fear of loss.  I waive the insurance on rental cars because I already have insurance on my own car.  My risk exposure is, at worst, a $500 deductible.  When a neighbor breaks a part on his uninsured clunker and waives collision coverage on a rental because he can’t afford the $40 daily coverage, that’s optimistic, arrogant, and self-deprecating.  Then when he hits a deer with the rental car and drains his bank account for the next six months to pay to fix someone else’s brand new car, he feels like the universe is robbing him and he just doesn’t get a break.  So why bother trying to get ahead?  Maybe better to have nothing so you have nothing to lose?

Most people here don’t seem to have come from roots like mine, where you work to provide, and you buy insurance to cover the unthinkable.  And so many people here don’t even consider buying insurance as they clean houses or sell their wares to buy the next day’s food or rent.  And yet, to my amazement, they find a way to travel to an ashram in India or buy a season ski pass.

It’s all about perceived value.  The person who struggles day to day but travels to faraway places for spiritual enlightenment clearly values the latter over the daily grind.  But I wonder:  Are they really living the life they want?  What about the day to day?  Would they not be happier and more productive if they took better care of their daily needs?  Do they really have the resources they need to make a difference in the world or even to manifest their own dreams inspired by their spiritual retreats?

I suspect that optimism, arrogance, self-deprecation, and fear of loss may be at play here.  Especially fear of loss.  A memorable trip or a ski pass are ephemeral; you use them up and no one can take them away from you.  So, they’re safer than a house, a reliable car, or investments in your future, all of which you could lose.

I can relate to the desire to be free and unburdened, with open options, especially for the younger folks just beginning their adult lives.  When I was starting out, I did choose the long educational slog, but I opted for a summer of freedom between college and medical school.  While backpacking through Europe with my then boyfriend, I vividly remember an ironic encounter on a train in Athens.  Heavily laden and tired, having slept on boat decks and in train stations, we stood across from an older couple decked out in the trappings of wealth and 5 star travel. They expressed their envy of our freedom while, in that moment, we envied their comfort.

While some are stuck in poverty through circumstances not of their own making, many seem to find virtue in poverty and do make a conscious choice.  Again, there’s a freedom to traveling through life unencumbered by debt or belongings.  It makes complete sense for the young person who is still exploring before making commitments or putting down roots.

But I wonder about the older person, say my age, who continues to live the footloose life.  Do they think about the future?  Do they worry about aging or infirmity?  What about the inner demand to fulfill a purpose or make a difference as their future gets shorter?  Will they be able to support that manifestation? And do they ever wonder who will take care of them when the previously denied unthinkable happens?  Or have they just become so used to not investing in their health or well-being that they don’t do so until a crisis demands their attention?

Part of that arrogance is a denial of needs and, at worst, I’ve seen it affect children.  Raising kids in an unheated camper in -30 degrees F can result in lost custody.  I’ve seen the outrage at such state intervention; I’ve also seen kids with frostbite.

As we age, that same arrogance and optimism often applies to ourselves.  Can you be absolutely certain that you won’t be a burden on those around you?  No.  Can you be reasonably certain?  Depends—hopefully so.  But, if there’s a certainty that, on your current chosen trajectory, you will eventually be a burden on others, how do you justify that in your own mind?  Is this the equation behind so many non-profits?  Is this a way to feel like you’re contributing something unique and important to society so that, when you’re in need, it feels OK to ask for everything you need, no matter what the cost?  For many, it feels better to do for others than to take care of themselves along the way.

I also see a spiritual arrogance among many who seek to justify their scarcity mentality.  There seems to be an audacious optimism among many who are quick to pray for their needs to get met yet commit to a strategy to provide for themselves day to day.  This reminds me of the story of the pious man on the roof of his house during a flood.  He turns away a rowboat, a motor boat, and a helicopter, insisting that he is praying and God will save him.  When he drowns and asks God why he wasn’t saved, God tells him he sent him two boats and a helicopter!  What more did he expect?  I cringe when I hear people say, “God will provide” or “it’s up to Spirit.”  I can only imagine their deity thinking, “Gee, I had much bigger plans for you than a bailout!”

What you believe, and we all develop beliefs from birth on, is paramount.  Our underlying beliefs determine every one of our choices in life.  So it’s critically important to be sure that our beliefs are in line with our reality and vice versa.  We can, of course, consciously change what we believe.  If you really believe that poverty makes you virtuous, I challenge you to take a closer look.

I think the belief in poverty equaling virtue is as much of a trap as any other limiting belief.  To live a “virtuous” life, pretending to make a difference in the   world simply through prayer or good thoughts, while shopping for cheap at Walmart—and, at the same time, vilifying those who have chosen to create wealth, jobs, and products we want, using their wealth to make an honest difference in the world-- is just hypocrisy.

Maybe the footloose lifestyle is not so freeing after all.  Over time, you might realize you need to change your strategy.  But then you’re stuck with no resources to make that change.  Living a Spartan lifestyle does not preclude wealth, nor does creating wealth mean living unconsciously or with excess.  Ask Warren Buffett.

So my advice?

  1. No matter what you believe, it always comes down to your daily walk through life. Your virtue will never be measured by the amount of material wealth you do or do not have, but rather how you live.  You were born to live a beautiful and joyous life.  If you don’t believe this, you will continue to invite the chaos or poverty you need to keep you from living in beauty and joy.
  2. Expect losses along the way and build your life on an upward incline. You never know how a day will go and you need to be prepared for the unexpected as well as the unthinkable.  They’re part of life.  We are working with a global network marketing company that we visit quite often.  Many of the success stories we encounter are immigrants who came here with no English and no money, but were willing to work hard to create abundance for themselves and their families because they believed in themselves and their mission.  And they did not allow any limiting beliefs or unforeseen obstacles to get in their way.
  3. Examine yourself for arrogance, excessive optimism, self-deprecation, self-sabotage, and fear of loss. How many of your life choices are based on these vs. an upward trend?
  4. Invest in yourself as well as your mission. Affordability should be determined by value, not by cost.  For example, if you’re not eating healthy food, supplementing intelligently, and getting good exercise, you will pay more later with illness and infirmity.  And, of course, the more healthy and vibrant you are, the more you have to offer and the more you can be on mission.

Money is just energy that can be used for good or ill.  The best path to virtue involves being as effective as you can be in your life.  If you still carry a poverty mentality, it will impede your effectiveness no matter the mission.  So find a way to change your belief and up your game.  There’s no time like the present moment and the world needs your unique gifts.

2 thoughts on “Poverty Conscious?  Get Over It!”

  • Beth Robinson
    Beth Robinson May 24, 2016 at 12:04 PM

    Brilliant! Ive been in this community for 24 years, and have been having this same discussion for as long. I am still incredulous when all too often witnessing the endemic poverty consciousness here. What I find most disconcerting is that this is the model held up to the children of the community as how to "get along". I just yesterday read a facebook post from someone who is considering quitting a job she clearly loves because she makes $200 too much to qualify for Medicaid! As I said, incredulous!
    Id love to see your commentary published in the Taos News!

    • Debra J. Solomon, M.D.
      Debra J. Solomon, M.D. May 24, 2016 at 2:20 PM

      Great comment, Beth! Thanks for weighing in. It certainly is endemic here in Taos, but I've seen it in different flavors all over. The example of the person quitting a job to qualify for Medicaid says as much anout our broken system as it does about the person. Along the lines of "what gets rewarded gets done," the Medicaid system is an example of rewarding people for making less money. Additionally, we all tend to value what we pay for. I have noticed throughout my career that when people are not required to pay out of pocket for services or missed appointmentts (i.e. have nothing invested) they are far more likely to miss those appointments...

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