Where we best reside
Last month, writing about equanimity, I ended up quoting José Mujica, president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015: “I am not advocating poverty, I am advocating sobriety.” Mujica – known as the world’s poorest, most humble president – lives with his wife and a three-legged dog in a one-bedroom home on a small farm near Montevideo, where they cultivate chrysanthemums for sale. He drives a 1987 Volkswagen Bug, and as president donated 90 percent of his salary to charity. In an article about his austerity, he quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
MFK Fisher, another of my favorite philosophers, wrote similarly about living a simple and satisfying childhood during the “nonchalant extravagance of the Twenties” – which I believe found its equal in the prodigal 80s. It was then that the popular catchphrase became abundance. The “Abundance Prayer” of that time includes these words: “We dwell in the midst of Infinite Abundance. The Abundance of God is our Infinite Source.” While it does seem true that we are embraced by a generous cosmic infinity of multiple universes, and so have access to much more than we can know, we are still limited by what we can take in, digest, and put to valuable use.
There is a fable told by a musician about the time that his band had played before the king so well that they were all brought to the royal treasury and rewarded with as much as their instruments could hold. The tuba player shoveled buckets of jewels into his tuba, the drummer stacked thousands of thousand-dollar bills in his bass drum, and the saxophone player filled the bell of his instrument with precious diamonds – “while there I stood,” the musician lamented, “limited by my piccolo.”
It’s not a question of redistributing wealth – it’s a question of redistributing opportunity of access according to need. I prefer the word sufficient to abundance, to consider what is appropriate rather than what is desired in some sort of congruence with prevailing circumstances and conditions. There is always the danger of an unconscious erosion along that already slippery slope from utilization to commodification, in which the value of a thing is reduced from being useful to becoming merely convenient.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope, he chose Francis as his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, saying “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time.” Decades after seeing it, I vividly recall the scene in Brother Sun, Sister Moon in which young Giovanni “Francesco” di Pietro di Bernardone rejected the material world of his father – including the clothing that he wore – to become Saint Francis. The idea of poverty that the Pope evoked was that of Mujica’s: sobriety in the face of an addiction to an ever-increasing economy. “Since we have invented a consumer society,” the world’s poorest president has said, “the economy must constantly grow; if it fails to increase, it’s a tragedy” —the tragedy of an increased tolerance requiring an increased dose.
In another tradition, the Tao Te Ching has Lao Tzu saying “I have three treasures that I cherish: compassion, moderation, and humility. My compassion brings about my courage, my moderation brings about my generosity, and my humility brings about my authority.” In Buddhism, likewise, living life well is referred to by right livelihood, an essential step along the Noble Eightfold Path that had been rediscovered by Gautama Buddha during his quest for enlightenment: “I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times.”
What we do for a living is how it is that we live, not how we make our money. Because I live, this is what I do, and money is at best simply a byproduct of what it is I do. Right livelihood suggests that we find how to love what we do, and furthermore love doing it as an expression of love, for – as Billy Preston once famously said – “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” The tagline wasn’t meant to set up a Hobson’s choice between fantasy and reality, because there is no room in a full heart for regret and resentment. The real and the ideal is always an unfair comparison, as with apples and oranges; instead, find what is perfect in what is taking place, and what is wonderful about what we do for a living.
The quality of a life lived well has nothing to do with quantity, either in time or money, because the measure of a thing is not the thing being measured, and frugality is sobriety, not stinginess. When couples want to discuss their problems with money, I ask them to define for themselves the words value, price, cost and worth. Distinguishing these concepts from one another can be a very useful practice to help untangle their confusion about what has become – almost always – a terribly fraught discussion.
Leo Tolstoy’s short story titled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” tells how Satan offers a peasant as much land as he can walk around in one day. As he walks along, his desires lead him farther and farther astray, until – almost too late – he realizes that the sun has begun setting. He begins running, and runs more quickly in sudden panic that he might not have all the land that he had wanted after all. He finally collapses exhausted where he started, and dies, and is buried in a piece of land measuring only six feet.
I like to believe there is a place for me just my shape and size, sufficient for this life and this world – and this is where I best reside, for now.