Paul Andersen: Living well is wealth enough
I know a man and his family, long time locals in our valley, whose wealth far exceeds its material manifestations in their personal lives, and whose generosity to good causes knows no bounds.
This man and his wife live in a beautiful setting in a remote location in one of the tributary valleys to the Roaring Fork. Their home is neither lavish nor huge. It is cozy and homey and filled with their own artwork and memorabilia. It is both humble and welcoming.
Their embrace of voluntary limits is measured more by what they don’t show of their wealth than by what they do. Yet they could easily afford all they don’t show. Inverse bragging rights apply to their decisions not to have a big home, fancy cars, designer fashions and garages filled with things that aren’t used or needed.
They have resisted the material enticements that American culture often projects to the world and for which millions of hard working people mire themselves into debt. They have said no to the lure of consumer spending that is so linked with economic prosperity that the propaganda of capitalism is almost irresistible.
Last week at the gas station, I was barraged by the blaring loudspeaker on which I could not reach the mute button in time. The message was perfectly geared to the pervasive consumer mentality.
“The more gas you buy, the more you save!” announced the voice, delivering a slight twist on the mantra, “more is better.” What the voice didn’t say is that the more gas you buy, the more you spend.
Indebtedness is worse still, especially if you fall into the black hole of credit card debt and its ruinous interest rates. The hard truth is that the more you spend and the more you owe, the more you must slave at work and sacrifice your life to the altar of mammon.
My wife’s birthday last weekend was celebrated with blueberry pancakes, coffee and a family hike. My wife, Lu, our son, Tait, and I walked a quiet trail and admired our surroundings as the first burst of spring arrived with birdsong and the bright, lime-green hint of budding foliage.
We live up the beautiful Frying Pan Valley, but most places in this region have their own beauty, and most of it is free and open because it’s public land. Taking a quiet walk was all we needed to celebrate a birthday and also to celebrate the life paths that have brought us here.
Lu received just two gifts: a hiking shirt she can wear on Saturday hikes with her summer hiking group, and a cookbook that has already inspired a couple of savory culinary experiments for our dinner table.
These are not rich gifts, but then, we are not rich, at least not by the definition of wealth broadcast with glitter and gilt by commercial America. Yet, we feel we have wealth untold because of where and how we live, and by striving to do good works.
In his “Theory of the Leisure Class,” Thorstein Veblen decried “conspicuous consumption” and, still more, the “conspicuous waste” of material goods and human labor spent on palatial homes and unnecessary trinkets that assign image and status.
By contrast, my family’s good fortune is in the laughter we share, in meaningful conversations over meals, in our love of nature, in a birthday hike in our greater backyard. We strive to measure our successes, not on ledger sheets, but with emotional and spiritual gratitude. Tranquility is the dividend of our life investments.
Our wealth lies in this beautiful place we call home, in quiet nights where the only sound is the rush of the river, in birdcall that wakes us on spring mornings, in music, art and the starlit heavens, all of which are part of living in this valley.
We are wealthy with riches available to anyone who chooses to live beyond the false prophet of material dross, by anyone choosing to live simply without sacrificing one’s soul to wage earning or to the addiction of acquisition. We are wealthy when we look around us with appreciation for life.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.