I met today with Jim, a local vicar who had invited a speaker into his church to talk about poverty. The speaker suggested that a wealthy person’s response to poverty should go beyond simple material giving (most in this congregation are relatively financially comfortable). He’d suggested that giving also needed to be relational. In other words engaging person to person with (his example) a homeless person, chatting and connecting, was as generous and meaningful an offering, as the more instrumental, but detached, gesture of donating cash.
Based on the Money and Life work, I suggested that we could go even further in deepening our response to poverty. This is both in specific terms (how to relate to a particular situation or person) and in general terms (how to respond as a relatively well off person to the social reality of material poverty and financial inequality). Here are some of the implications for our relationship to poverty:
We need to experience and acknowledge inner poverty as a universal human experience:
An absolutely fundamental first step is to recognise and fully encounter one’s own sense of inner poverty. Most of us, regardless of whether we have material wealth or not, have an experience of some kind of inner lack, need or poverty. Many of us intuit at some level our lack of connection to what Jim the vicar would call the Divine. Others might say to the ‘universe’, the ‘bigger picture’ or to a ‘life of true meaning’. We experience this as a lack, a hole, some sort of core and unmet need. In more practical language, many people who have material wealth, feel a poverty in their relationships. They long to feel more connected and in flow with their loved ones, their community and indeed to themselves. Again, this can be felt as a real and deep sense of lack.
Being able to turn towards and experience (rather than simply think or worry about) one’s own actual sense of poverty – with neither judgement or justification, is a first step in taking this work deeper. It is not necessarily comfortable, but represents a gateway into a deeper relationship with both poverty and wealth.
Embracing paradox – glimpsing the richness of poverty:
Encountering and experiencing one’s inner sense of poverty is a powerful and relatively unusual step. Having encountered this one can start to see that paradoxically and surprisingly, it becomes a rich and meaningful experience. Really experiencing our inner sense of lack, strengthens our commitment to finding some deeper truth or meaning in life. Thus one’s inner poverty can be the start of some genuine inspiration. For those already on their path, turning again and again towards this deeper poverty forms a path of humility and surrender, opening to the fundamental mystery of life and again a step closer to (in Jim’s terms) the Divine – however we understand that word. Even intuiting the ultimate futility of a life devoted to compiling more material wealth, while our soul stirs uneasy at the deeper rhythm of life’s unfolding, can open us to richer, deeper and more meaningful questions.
Thus surprisingly, we start to see that rather than something to be afraid of and denied, our very human sense of inner poverty contains potential richness and wealth. After all the word ‘wealth’ comes from the same root as the world ‘whole’ and ‘heal’. True wealth arises as we become more whole to the full truth of what and who we are. A sense of lack, yearning and some kind of inner emptiness is indeed one part of who and what we are. By denying or ever seeking to escape from this truth we make ourselves less whole – and therefore less truly wealthy. By opening and embracing this aspect of our experience we gain wealth – in the sense of greater wholeness and healing.
Reclaiming inner poverty as a step towards true generosity:
Many people in our society are unable to allow themselves to experience this sort of inner poverty. After all nothing in society really supports such a thing. All around us we are bombarded with messages telling us that gaining more ‘stuff’ is the key to happiness. Money and possessions are portrayed as the only real wealth. We are repeatedly told that if we have plenty of stuff we ‘should’ be happy. Advertising and media greatly encourage us to chase outer wealth, and to deny and even be ashamed of any deeper yearnings. After all that is what keeps the economy growing.
Given this state of affairs, a next point to consider is that, caught in a trap of chasing outer wealth and denying inner poverty, it becomes impossible for those who are actually materially wealthy to truly help those who are not. Sure, we may donate some money every now and then, we may even (like Jim) be particularly generous in this regard. This is great and to be encouraged. But at a deeper level, to the extent that we are not fully in touch with our own experience of inner poverty, we remain afraid of poverty. We don’t yet see it is a universal human experience, shared (in one way or another) by us all. We are frightened of it, and thus do not want to experience it.
Psychodynamic theory tells us that any aspect of ourselves we are afraid of we tend to ‘project’ i.e. see out in the world as ‘not us.’ So in this case, we divide the world up into ‘the poor’ and everyone else. There is of course some real truth here. There is no question that many do suffer materially, lacking basic money and material goods. That is not in question. However, as long as those who do have material wealth are unconsciously afraid of their own inner experience of poverty, and unwilling to make contact with it internally, two patterns of behaviour arise:
‘Othering’ the poor:
First, they will find it harder to see their shared humanity, their fundamental equality with those they see as poor. To truly see, as Jim might say, that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ By othering the poor, by choosing to believe that they are in some way really different to us, we create a painful distance that ultimately blocks compassion and connection. There is much social psychology research that this is precisely what happens. For example I may (because of unconscious projection) believe that people are poor because on some level and in some way they are deficient, lazy, stupid (i.e. certainly ‘not like me’). If I am materially wealthy, I may believe that this is not through my good fortune, the grace of God, the conditions of my society and specifics of my upbringing, but through some individual self effort. I will be cutting myself of from the deeper truth of the interconnected web of life and events. Thus by unconsciously denying my own inner poverty I end up creating and solidifying the story of us and them in regard to the poor.
Limiting natural generosity:
Second, to the extent that I am not in touch with poverty as an inner experience and remain afraid of that experience, I will inevitably act in ways that try to stave it off. If (as most of us do) I believe what my culture tells me, that the way to stave of ‘poverty’ is to accrue financial and material wealth, then my potential to be truly generous with money, resource or time becomes radically blocked. Yes, I may give a little. Yes, I may have my chosen causes and charities. But the fundamental pattern of my life will continue to be based on personal accrual of financial and material wealth – because I truly believe, now and into the future, this is the way to stave of the experience of poverty. I believe that the experience of poverty is somehow ‘out there’. Perhaps I think it is out there in the future for me if I don’t get my shit together. Perhaps it is out there for me in the future if I leave the job I hate in order to do the thing I love. Perhaps it lurks out there after some undefined bad luck. In each scenario I must then devote my life energy to compiling and holding wealth to protect against bad luck so as to avoid this future experience I call poverty.
In each case, I continue to fail to see, or even consider, that my poverty is ultimately an inner experience. This pattern makes it impossible for me to do anything other than try to gather in more and more material and financial wealth, in the form of savings, pensions, investments, property etc. A certain privileged section of society calls this ‘sensible financial management’ and it is. We could equally choose to call it anxiety fuelled displacement activity. It is a deeper reason why we create systems and structures that allow the rich to get richer, even when they cannot possibly spend all their money in a lifetime.
To the extent that I can turn towards the inner experience of poverty, I may be able to free myself from that pattern of behaviour. The paradox again is that in so doing I become able to make decisions that lead to greater real wealth here and now – in this moment. For example, I may be able to take the risk to leave a job I hate, in order to do what I love. Doing what one loves is of course a source of great and real wealth. A source of true wholeness and wellness. I may be able to spend money on what I love. I may find it easier to give to others without fear and therefore with true generosity.
The inner dimensions of wealth and poverty:
Because such a view is so very unusual in our culture, I imagine anyone reading this far might well be sceptical. Either I am talking total nonsense, or our culture has managed to so greatly distort individual and collective stories about money and life, lack and wealth, that we’ve been lead on completely the wrong track. I am open to both possibilities. Personally, when I look at recent events such as: Bitcoin speculation, the collapse of the financial industry through credit default swaps, the massive growth in inequality in capitalist economies, the breakdown of public services due to austerity imposed by a government that could simply (and indeed has) create its own money, I do think we must consider that our story of money and life has become grotesquely distorted. We must consider whether our financial systems, which include our every day concepts of wealth and poverty are unnecessary confusions that obscure a much wiser possibility for arranging human affairs.
Some simple reflections can help one deepen one’s thinking on the relationship between inner and outer wealth and poverty:
- It is notable how many of those considered our wisest, kindest, deepest thinkers and doers, across all cultures and all historical periods had very little preoccupation with money and material wealth. Christ, Gandhi, Mother Theresa. Again and again when we look we can see that integrity, influence, compassionate action, wisdom – in other words true wealth (wholeness) has no particular relationship to money. Of course this means that one can also be financially wealth and wise too. Money intrinsically is nothing to do with it one way or the other.
- On a more prosaic note, many people I work with reflect on times in their life where they felt most rich; when they experienced great wholeness and aliveness. It might be a sense of freedom, creativity, aliveness, joy or flow. Very often people tell stories about younger days, travelling, doing exciting things, following inspirations and crazy plans. Often people come alive when they share these stories – their faces light up, they glow, they beam. You can actually witness aliveness in their faces and bodies as they speak.
And when, with the story told, I ask, ‘and how much money did you have at that point?’ they invariably say, still beaming, ‘oh, I had very little money’. The story then turns to the delight of sleeping in a bus stop, having to hitch hike, finding ways to stretch out their last bit of money. The reflection here – in one’s own life (this is absolutely not about making any judgement or holding a story about other people who may or may not have money) is to actually notice when one has had a real inner experience of wholeness, wealth and richness. Having identified those time(s) to simply notice how much any of that was connected with material wealth or money. In my experience there is usually no connection. Yet the power and magic of our current societal story about money leads us to believe that the two are intrinsically and necessarily intertwined.
A systemic and political response to the poor.
Somehow out of the abundance of life, the richness of our planet, and the endless creativity of humans we have managed to create a world with appalling material poverty and ever expanding financial inequality between those who have and those who have not. There is nothing natural about it at all – we have created this. At the same time as creating this structural imbalance – we have created a system where very many people with material wealth and resources experience a desperate inner poverty in terms of meaning, well being and mental / emotional ease. These two things are not disconnected. They are absolutely two sides of the same coin.
As a society we need to acknowledge both the absurd insult of genuine material poverty and the deep and widespread pain of inner lack amidst great material wealth. We could find real inspiration through encountering both dimensions of poverty, leading us to reassess our priorities, and indeed the very basis of our society. Part of this is to acknowledge that growth, money and stuff can never lead to the true wealth that a human soul truly seeks because one part of human poverty is always an inner experience.
If collectively we could grasp this, then two things might become possible. First true generosity, a humble willingness and capacity to share based on a sense of fellowship with the materially poor could emerge. Nations might become prepared to share resources and treat one another more fairly. Secondly, a new vision for society might start to emerge – centred on establishing lives based on wisdom, meaning, goodness and purpose rather than on material accumulation. Rebalancing material wealth and attending to inner wholeness are both necessary for a healthy society. They are two sides of the same coin, and turning towards inner poverty is an important part in this process. If we could but notice and then honour it, our inner poverty could eventually become our greatest and most precious resource, realigning personal and collective life toward true wholeness and health – toward universal wealth.
 If anything most people I talk with seem to experience less freedom, flow and vitality as they have accrued material wealth through life