To get the most out of this spirographic article, you’ll need to connect some pretty far-ranging dots. I think it will take work on both our parts, but I also think it’s worth the lives it might save.
About ten years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office talking over some minor medical annoyances and asked a question that had been troubling me for some time.
“What are your thoughts on tummy tucks?”
“Heather,” he said, “you’ve had nine kids.” (Yeah, yeah — more on that in an upcoming piece.) “Treat yourself. It’s about three grand, and worth it if it makes you feel better about yourself.”
I did a pile of research about abdominoplasty and other tempting forms of surgical resurrection. For a modest $10,000, I could nip and tuck just about everything that was bothering me on the physique side of things. Colour my hair, tattoo my eyebrows, some electrolysis, extensions and flavour-of-the-day beauty regimens and I would be the woman I’d never been — perfect, maybe.
That’s when the trouble with the roof came up.
No, we didn’t spring a leak and there was no catastrophic hail to claim my budgeted small fortune.
There was a school in Ethiopia, and it had no roof.
The kids couldn’t attend during monsoon times. On sunny days, the heat would beat down into the four-walled enclosure. There was no way to protect books or papers or desks from anything…that was, if they were even to be had.
A friend was involved in the non-profit organization working to help this unbelievably poor village develop reliable infrastructure. They wouldn’t be building a rec centre or community hall or even solar panels for power. You see, the village had one also unbelievably poor well with a pump that operated sporadically a few times per week. Children and women, with every possibly portable container they owned, would stand in line for hours to secure enough water for their basic needs. Fact is, the water was brackish and damaging to the children’s health, particularly their bones and teeth.
The plan was to build a pipeline from low mountains some miles from the current well that would supply enough fresh water to meet the villagers’ multiple needs (drinking, cooking, bathing, and growing food.)
The founder of this ambitious organization?
A mom and her cul-de-sac friends from a suburb in Arizona. They had children, and had lost children, and wanted to give something forward…raise up a village, in fact.
The more I learned about their efforts, the more I wondered how I could possibly devote the price of a school roof to a flat belly or a more fashionable jawline.
The cognitive dissonance pestered me relentlessly.
Around this time, I had one of the saddest conversations I’ve had with a friend. I’ll call her Kate.
Kate had invested heart and hard work into a decades-long marriage. She had given her all to raise children, contribute to the family economy, support her husband’s demanding business, be a strength to the local community and stay attractive. From all appearances, hers was a respectable, stable life…maybe even enviable because it looked so darn good.
Gradually, Kate had awakened to some realities. They were nothing she hadn’t suspected for some time, but nonetheless shot holes in her heart. She was bleeding out as we sat together, both of us stunned.
“It’s like this, Heather — I have depended on what I do and how I look to guarantee me love. Years of trying to be the ideal wife and mother have gotten me what? A broken relationship, trashed promises, and nothing to look forward to.”
She continued, “I’ve worn makeup every day since I turned 14. I’ve dieted and exercised and given up so many things to buy love. It didn’t work.”
All I could think of was the seeming futility of her investment…at least in this moment. Where was the happiness?
I was haunted, again, by my own speculation in surface perfection. Were any returns guaranteed? What was I actually trying to buy?
Midas was an ancient king of Phrygia. He had a devoted daughter, palaces, power, and a fortune of gold…but not enough to complete his happiness. Through a stroke of good luck, he is offered a wish come true by the god Dionysius.
Already, Midas owned enough riches that he could afford to bath in them, often counting and wearing his lavish treasures. What he wanted was more.
In fact, he wished to have the gift of creating gold. Dionysius cautioned him against the choice, but acquiesced. In the morning, anything and everything Midas touched would turn to gold.
And it did: table, walls, flowers, goblets. The grape he tried to consume, the bread he attempted to eat, the water he wanted to drink — they, too, all turned to gold.
Fear mounted in his heart. What if I am unable to live because of my greed?
Midas’ devoted daughter entered her father’s chamber. He walked to embrace her. She, too, was transformed into solid gold.
Foolish man, right? Anyone could have seen that coming, right?
And yet, I have to wonder, isn’t it a contemporary mindset that more wealth will equal more happiness? Isn’t it mine?
A May 2018 study of millionaires, published by Harvard Business School, reveals that the super-wealthy believe that money buys happiness…to a certain point. The majority of all respondents said that to be perfectly happy, they’d need to grow their wealth significantly.
Compare this with a 2010 study of the not-so-super-wealthy, and the finding is that up to a certain income threshold money does indeed buy less stress, more opportunities, more capacity to enjoy free time, etc. The Princeton researchers who authored the study concluded that, “More money does not necessarily buy more happiness [even though] less money is associated with emotional pain.” At about $75,000/year, the positive effect of greater wealth diminished, though.
In a 2005 study review on material wealth, experiences and happiness, Leaf Van Boven found that the way people use their wealth significantly influences their level of happiness.
Respondents…indicated that purchases made with the intention of acquiring life experiences make them happier than purchases made with the intention of acquiring material possessions.
One of those more fulfilling experiences appears to be giving. Philanthropy advisor Jenny Santi, in an August 2017 Time article, suggests that giving is a higher predictor of happiness than wealth accumulation.
Perhaps Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunus, captures the equation between wealth, experiences, giving and life satisfaction best:
Making money is a happiness; making other people happy is a superhappiness.
I live in a small community. There isn’t a lot of commercial activity or even a ton of buying options. Merchants struggle to stay in business. “Buy local” is a well-used rally cry…but the majority of shopping takes place in the city about 40 minutes’ drive from where I live.
I would guess that for many of us who travel to malls and department stores, shopping is as much recreational as it is practical.
This is understandable.
Our local economy, like so many others across the world, tanks more than it rallies. Agriculture, a mainstay in my region, is fraught with market difficulties, not to mention unreliable weather. We tend to celebrate economic survival by spending, even if it means ka-ching on credit.
Paradoxically, my region has a higher standard of living than a substantial percentage of the world’s population. Our “pinch” still allows for regular entertainment, treats, more clothing than we sometimes have space to hang or store, occasional trips, and generous waist-lines.
Is this level of comfort a bad thing? I can’t say for anyone but myself. I like the freedom to own what pleases me. I like soft pillows, pretty dresses and books, dinners out, nice pens, and a good camera.
I find myself wondering, though, what it takes for me (and for others) to feel like we’re enjoying a good life enough that we can see it’s enough.
In the personal finance classic Your Money or Your Life, authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin set up a though-provoking premise. It is that at a certain point, we reach a level of material saturation and what comes after that is not intrinsically satisfying or even healthy; it is overconsumption.
Consider this graphic from the book, featured in J.D. Roth’s Your Money: The Missing Manual.
Are you wondering what I’m wondering?
This is where I should have you over for dinner and we talk. We talk long and hard about questions like these:
- When did we realize we were out of survival mode? What does “survival” even mean to us? Are we back in it at times? Or is it just a blip of discomfort, and the cash flows again?
- What constitute our comforts? Are mine the same as yours? Can they be defined by any external authoritative source, or do they differ person-to-person and are based on unique tastes, emotional needs, history, and personality?
- What are luxuries to you? To me? To others we know? To others we don’t know? How do you know when something is a comfort or a luxury?
- When is enough enough?
I’ve got this lower back thing going on and have been seeking relief through massage therapy. I walked to my appointment the other day and finished with time to pass before the next item on my to-do list.
There is one clothing store downtown. I strolled into it, just to browse.
It’s a little upscale for my usual shopping budget but has great sales on respected clothing labels. I’ve been looking for a slim blue dress skirt, a really comfy button up shirt, and something to make me look twenty years younger. They were fresh out of all of these…but I picked out two items I don’t really need but would likely enjoy and find useful on specific occasions. Then I remembered this article-in-progress and my heart heaved.
My wardrobe is past survival level. I have plenty of comfort in the number and colours of skirts I already own and in the the easy-to-wear, slouchy shirts I love to put on after work, and I’m 55 and accepting of it, mostly. What in the world am I doing in a clothing store courting luxuries when I have a pretty accurate knowledge of what people one small step away from me are experiencing at this very moment?
My friend Ryan, who is a modest person, will not want me telling you this part of the story right now, but I sort of asked his permission and he’s sort of had to make his effort public in order to be effective in what he’s trying to do, so I’m pressing on.
Last week, this GoFundMe campaign appeared on my Facebook page. It is soliciting donations for relief supplies needed in the aftermath (and ongoing instability) of the Fuego Volcano in Guatemala.
Guatemala holds an unusual place in my heart. My second oldest son passed away there nearly five years ago, and I have felt drawn to the people and their homeland since.
I just got my income tax refund. I donated. I felt compassion for the people, deepened respect for my friend who initiated this worthy cause and flew down as soon as possible to begin distributing materials and attempting to help set things right, and — frankly — I felt a little bit numb.
The need in this one Central American country alone is so huge. A belligerent volcano merely yells it out, for a few media minutes, to a world that is possibly more occupied with comfort- and luxury-level living than with others’ survival. Like me, perhaps. You’ll remember that, knowing what I know, I still went shopping.
NO GUILTING INTENDED.
This is an introspection made public. MY thinking is in question here. I feel hopeful that sorting this out alongside you will help me line up some dots, gain clarity, and be truer to the crux of my own matter — the cells of my soul, intelligence, heart.
What I know is that I am not innocent of this suffering.
Through Ryan, I have “overheard” the following conversation — not one held over dinner with friends and thoughtful sips, but in emergency food lines in relief centres not far from a spewing mountain. I have known about it for a week or more.
- What has happened to my grandmother?
- Could my 13 missing family members possibly have survived?
- When will the mountain stop covering our settlements and poisoning our air?
- Will the baby inside me be all right?
- How long will these food donations hold out?
- How will we ever rebuild?
- What can I possibly do for a living now that my fields and livelihood have perished?
- What will tomorrow bring?
- How can I ever repay this generosity?
- Will life ever return to peace again?
- Who will help us when this help runs out?
Repeats of this same turmoil of hope and despair happen wherever there is disaster and upheaval. Pick your developing country, choose any current civil war, select from among multiple post-conflict regions, identify marginalized populations near where you live, or throw a dart at a map of the world and you will find an abundance of suffering and need.
Then scan the material of our lives.
When is what we have enough so we can turn our attention to others’ lack?
Dot Eleven, the Final One: This for That
Here is a simple method of material evaluation that has been playing in my mind for over a decade.
I believe it is a sound path to greater happiness than dollars and cents can buy.
I believe it can make us all richer than Midas.
I believe it is even, quite possibly, a guarantee of lasting happiness.
I named it This for That.
But, I believe it will work…or at least make a difference. I believe it means trading wealth for meaningful experiences, like giving.
I also sincerely believe it will save lives, even within minutes from when you and I and anyone else acts on the idea.
Here it is:
1. Hold something in your mind or hand that you intend to acquire.
2. Ask: Is this related to my survival? If it is and you can, buy it.
3. If it is not, determine whether it is a comfort or a luxury. Determine the level of happiness you believe it will deliver you, and the time-frame of that happiness. Will it last as long as I’m eating or drinking it? Till my friends admire it? As long as it makes the person happy I’m giving it to? Will it genuinely enrich my life? Will it be important to my happiness as long as I live?
THIS IS YOUR “THIS.”
4. Call to mind a need of which you are aware. This could be in your neighborhood, or within the mandate of a charity or non-profit organization you support, or it may be food or clothing or shelter or medical help or education or water for an individual you have never met or never will.
If it’s simpler, reduce this step to two questions:
Who is in need?
What do they need?
THIS IS YOUR “THAT.”
5. Finally, and seriously, consider the answer to this question:
Am I willing to trade “this” for “that”?
If so, do it.
Do it in person.
Do it through a donation to a trusted provider of the service or commodity needed.
Do it soon.
Call to Action
Doing “This for That” is my call to action.
I know it will be meaningful for the recipient of your generosity.
I believe it will make our lives richer with purpose and connection.
It may even be life-saving.
Thank you for reading and, if you’re able, for sharing this article,
PS In case you are interested, here is footage related to the Fuego Volcano eruption. Please be aware that there will be a few minutes of the rescue effort and they are graphic.