Last night, I had a wonderful meal with some new friends who are working to create an alternative online community. We ate at Red Sea, an Eritrean/Ethiopian restaurant down the street from me. As we sat before a giant communal platter of food: meats, vegetables, lentils, fish, all spread across sour injera bread, I marveled at the bounty before us and the irony that this amazing cuisine comes to us from a part of the world where the majority of citizens would be eating far less and far fewer dishes in one meal, and would certainly not have the need for a stainless steel tiffin in which to carry home leftovers.
To be able to eat until our bellies are full, to have food left over, and to feel secure that there will be more tomorrow, this is affluence. And whether we choose to overindulge or to eat simply, the fact that we have a choice is also affluence. Whether we live in a single family home or palacial estate or studio apartment, those of us who have a roof over our heads and are not worried about ending up in the streets are affluent compared with the 85% of people worldwide who earn less than $2,200 per year and whose lives are less certain.
Affluent comes from the Latin “to flow toward.” Having affluence means that the good things in life flow toward you. But if affluence is flow, then do those of us lucky enough to have been born into great (relative) wealth have a responsibility to keep the waters moving, to sustain (our word from last month) the flow? Or is it our right to dam it up and stop it, thinking we can keep all the goodies for ourselves?
A new documentary film entitled Flow, looks at the “growing privatization of the world’s dwindling fresh water supply” and asks the question, “CAN ANYONE REALLY OWN WATER?” And in fact, right now my own state of California is fighting the Nestle Corporation in court over its plan to build a water-bottling plant in Siskyou County to capture “1,600 acre feet of spring water per year (and an unlimited amount of groundwater) from the McCloud river under a 100-year contract.” Forget about all the plastic bottles for a minute, how does this private company have the right to stop the flow?
Sustaining the flow means directing our resources in such a way that they continue to benefit the rest of the world as they travel from one hand to the next. If we’re talking about money, then it means using our wallets to support a healthy world. Not buying the bottled water, just because we can, but choosing organic, fair trade, least toxic products and avoiding those that in some way cause harm. It means that if we make enough money to save for the future, investing in socially and environmentally responsible companies. And it means, to the best of our ability, supporting organizations that are working to create positive change in the world.
There are all kinds of ways we can keep our money flowing to create positive change in the world. But flow is not necessarily only monetary. It’s also the time that we have available to live on this planet and what we choose to do with it. I am very fortunate to work only 3 days per week and make enough money to live comfortably (meaning organic food, shelter in a relatively safe neighborhood, a nice computer and Internet access, healthcare, ability to pay for “extras” like concerts and plays and meditation retreats.) I live in a modest rented apartment and don’t own a car. But those are choices. I have the luxury of trading free time for material possessions.
For several years, I wondered what it was I was supposed to do with all this free time. I watched a lot of movies. I learned to knit and made silly things for everyone I knew. I trained for and ran a marathon. I planted a roof garden. I learned web programming and made funny flash animations. I got addicted to playing The Sims (a topic for a possible upcoming post) and stayed up many nights in a row making sure my little people ate and showered and peed and slept and chatted so they would be in the mood to go to work and make enough Simoleans to buy new stuff and “move up” in their world. And I came home nearly every night depressed because I felt that all this free time was a gift that I was squandering.
And I was stagnating. The waters were dammed up. The projects I jumped into felt kind of pointless when I considered their impact (or lack thereof) on the rest of the world. And then I found what I thought was my calling. Plastic. This blog. Fake Plastic Fish. And suddenly, instead of keeping all my free time for myself, I was creating a positive force in the world. Not only learning for myself, but passing on what I learned to others. Creating connections. Joining with others. But even this is not the end of the story.
No matter how many good things I had or how many good things I did, there was still me, struggling.
So I’m learning slowly and painfully, there is another kind of affluence that is not based on having anything at all. Money or time or friends or even health. It’s the affluence that all of us share: the privilege of simply being. And the recognition that none of us is truly separate from the other, that in reality, there is no other. Whomever and whatever we harm is ultimately ourselves. And when we stand in the way of the flow (or, some might say tao) there is nothing real to win anyway.
For me, it’s actually easy to focus on environmental issues and giving to charities and buying organic and petitioning companies and governments and riding my bike instead of driving and volunteering my time because those things build up my ego and give me a sense of self-worth. It’s easy to use the affluence I was born into in these ways to make a better world. And it’s important. It’s my responsibility as a member of the global rich.
But simply being is the greatest affluence of all. And awakening to that fact is truly all that is necessary to save us. All other right actions flow from that source.