This is John Scalzi’s famous piece on what being really poor is like. To many of us it’s just a theoretical concept. It was to me for the most part, until I met someone whose story rivals and even exceeded that level of deprivation. It’s mind-boggling, what people in this century, in this developed country, still go through to survive. Some, like Scalzi, go on to become famous, respected writers and other professions, through sheer determination and vision. Others are not fortunate enough to have opportunities or mentors to encourage them to beat the odds.
Compared to the above, I wouldn’t call our situation utter poverty, especially relative to much of the world. We get by with basic necessities, and the occasional cheap or free pastime. We have learned to be fairly content with our present circumstances, patiently (with exceptions) waiting for them to improve so we can move forward. I wouldn’t call it zen-like acceptance, but we have come to grips with our setbacks, keep our eyes on the goal, and tighten the belt as necessary.
So it was while “indulging” in one of those free pastimes, hiking, that I started thinking about the forms addictions come in. The common denominator seems to be insecurity, and attempting to alleviate it or “fix” it. Some people buy stuff in an attempt to make themselves feel more secure or less empty, a substitute for what they really need. I’ve been known to do it now and then!
I thought about all the things I’ve come to realize I don’t “really need” to be content, mostly by not having a choice in the matter. But there’s always that basic bottom line, like a lifejacket, without which you think you’ll sink and drown. We think we have to have all these things society tells us we want and need, or we won’t be OK. We’re afraid to let go. We anxiously watch each thing fall away from us, dreading the loss and sense of insecurity that will surely follow. Then amazingly, we manage to keep going, and even live without it.
Craving artificial diversions and indulgences can be an addiction, giving a false sense of wellbeing. It’s so hard to go cold turkey, because you think you’ll have nothing left. But it’s a paradox; what you believe you need to keep those insecurities at bay, is actually what is keeping you cut off from what will make you well and whole: the natural world as our ancestors knew it, in all its simplicity and lack of manmade complication.
Did I get all that from a hike? No, but there was a point at which I felt I could go one of two ways: be miserable and preoccupied by feeling poor and deprived by my circumstances, or let all that drop away and be in the moment, undivided, in the peaceful ancient forest, the way it must have been before violent, greedy white conquerors disrupted the peace and destroyed the natural order of things. Those early first nations may have been “destitute” by our standards, but they knew a thing or two about wellbeing and harmony with our world which we’ve lost. They had very little, and made it work.
I know we have it really good compared to many people. We’re not refugees, not locked up, not subject to constant fear of brutality, and we have enough to eat. We have some future prospects, modest, but more than we had before. There’s still some natural beauty left to explore and nurture. It’s amazing how much you can lose and still be not only OK, but maybe more human, as intended.
Not that I would turn down an unexpected million dollars! I’m not that zen. But knowing that probably won’t happen, I’m OK with that. The trick is being resourceful with what you’ve got, and I like to think I’m tricksy like that.