Yesterday I joked about withdrawing my life savings and putting it under the mattress. Although I made that comment tongue-in-cheek (or at least mostly tongue-in-cheek), it started me to thinking about how we Americans would respond if things got really bad. And by "really bad" I mean Great Depression bad, not just giving-up-some-of-our-toys bad.
My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They were poor before it started and became even poorer. My grandmother, who in her later years could solve the Rubik's Cube and the Rubik's Revenge without any hints, couldn't go to high school because she had to work to help support her family. My grandfather had abandoned school for work after the sixth grade. They both worked and saved and invested and worked and saved and invested until finally, when they were in their 60s, they decided it was safe to retire.
My grandparents died comfortably well off, and I think that by many standards they probably were considered rich. In spite of their greatly improved financial position, they lived frugally their entire lives. My grandmother let me make the creamed potatoes for Sunday dinner, and one day, as I ran out of margarine and went to grab a new tub, I watched my grandmother get at least another tablespoon of margarine out of the "empty" tub that I was about to discard. Then there was my grandfather, who continued to wear shoes that appeared to have been purchased during the Great Depression well into the '70s and '80s, and who continued to wear his shirts long after they started springing holes. Sometimes I was embarrassed to go in public with him because he looked so raggedy. When I'd suggest that he might want to go shop for new duds, he would reply that the old ones suited him just fine. My grandparents raised their own fruits and vegetables in the spring and summer, and my grandmother canned what we couldn't immediately consume so that we'd have it during the fall and winter. Nothing ever went to waste. Ever. "Those who waste will come to want," my grandmother was fond of saying. She and my grandfather both knew from experience what it was to want for the basics, and they didn't plan to be doing that again any time soon.
My formative years, the good ol' Reagan '80s, stood in stark contrast to my grandparents' childhood and early adult experiences. In the '80s, the government ran exploding deficits and encouraged the citizenry to spend, spend, spend, even if that meant that all of us went into debt, too. "Buy now, pay later" was the prevailing societal "wisdom" when I was forming my views of money and its place in life. The "pay later" part always seemed to me like an afterthought, as long as I was able to get my hands on all the stuff that the glitzy advertisements succeeded in convincing me that I could not live without. No wonder my grandparents, who never had a debt except their mortgage and hardly ever bought anything besides food and sundries, looked so out of place to me.
Going from a childhood of poverty to an adulthood of financial security is one thing, but most of us in my generation would, were the financial situation to worsen, be going in the opposite direction. Although I don't particularly want to be poor, I am genuinely interested in what we, as an affluent, even downright extravagant society, would do if plunged into a state of widespread poverty. It obviously would be a huge shock, but it might well force us to get our priorities straight as a society and that, I think, actually would do a lot of us some good.
In a recent comment on another blog, a good friend of mine observed that we like money because we equate financial security with personal security. I think that was certainly true of my grandparents, who spent a lifetime clinging to what money they had, even when that amount became considerable and they could have afforded to let some go -- they didn't buy stuff to compensate for the stuff they lacked during the Great Depression, but it was important to their sense of security to have the ability, the money, to buy stuff if the need ever arose. I think that equating money with security also is at the core of our society's current focus on rampant consumerism, which tells us that the more buying power we have and use, the better off and more powerful we are.
The problem with this, of course, is that financial security does not, indeed cannot, provide the kinds of personal security that so many people seek from it. Money can't keep you from getting sick, it can't make people like you, it can't keep you out of conflict, it can't keep you out of harm's way, and it sure as hell can't keep you alive forever. Money doesn't ultimately stop any of the things that we fear most in life -- at best it can keep the bad stuff at bay a while longer (e.g., it can buy superior health care to increase the odds of health and longevity), and at worst it can makes some of the things we fear more likely (e.g., the more stuff we have the more there is to fight over, and the better equipped we are to conduct our fights).
I personally think that a better strategy would be to make peace with life's unalterable ebb and flow, and our place in it, instead of engaging in a misguided attempt to try to shield ourselves from the inevitable with material wealth. Although I'm not advocating that everyone go off and build a hut on Walden Pond and live off nuts and berries, I do think that living much more simply, whether by choice or necessity -- or at least cultivating the awareness that it is possible to live much more simply -- increases our ability to distinguish what is real from what is window dressing.
If and when our wealth diminishes in a significant way, will we spoiled Americans be able to see the reality, and therefore the beauty, of what is left? Will we be able to see that true security comes not from money or what it buys but rather from accepting that things are ever-changing and that we are vulnerable to certain things no matter what we do or have? Or will we just keep chasing after the almighty dollar and eagerly embrace the boom times when they return, as they surely someday will? A downturn in the economy may or may not cause folks to shift their attitudes and priorities toward the role of money, but as long as times remain affluent my bet is that most Americans will not voluntarily consider such a shift.
Maybe my grandmother was more right than she knew -- or maybe she was wise enough to know already just how right she was -- when she used the adage that "those who waste will come to want." And maybe, just maybe, having that adage come to fruition wouldn't be such a bad thing. Whatever happens, I am very thankful to have had the example that she and my grandfather set for how to live simply yet also live well.
A Fond Farewell - Hear ye, hear ye, the end is here. I mean, the end of the Gold Puppy blog. I've been thinking about it for awhile now, wondering what in the hell I'm do...
3 years ago