Sunday, June 19, 2011

the war on poverty

Greed is one of those issues about which, I imagine, there is a lot of ambivalence. On the one hand, it is pretty easy to get on a high horse and point out the social depredations greed can inflict. On the other hand, there are whispering accolades that acknowledge various sorts of greed within. On the one hand, greed is a loser. On the other hand, greed often goes hand-in-hand with winning and being a winner is very attractive ... personally attractive. Overall, greed is simultaneously "so unfair" and "so worthwhile!"

Once upon a time, the Dalai Lama gave a speech at Smith College, a well-heeled institution up the street from where I live. Tickets were impossible to come by, but the talk was televised live, so I watched a bit. Much as I admire the Dalai Lama, I couldn't listen to the whole thing. In my ear, his talk to a largely student and academic audience was a litany of repetition. The drumbeat repetition was warranted, but I wasn't in the mood for it. What that repetition amounted to was this: Use your very fine education to do some good in the world -- to help out those who are less well-heeled and well-endowed. Don't be parsimonious with your educated riches. Don't be greedy.

What I admire about the Dalai Lama is his apparent capacity to rest easy and allow others to ignore him.

I have no doubt that some heard his talk as an encouragement for a kind of elevated altruism -- sometimes called "compassion" by those unable or unwilling to investigate. But my guess was that the encouragement was more aimed at suggesting how to lead a happy and peaceful life ... not by playing the super-nice guy (serving others and in so doing, creating others) but rather by seeing that any other course would distance the peace any man or woman longed for, was capable of and was entitled to. What a delicate difference. It is the kind of delicacy that inclines people to nest in a rule book of altruism and leaves them wondering why uncertainty and doubt persist.

 What set off this amorphous train of thinking was the lead article on the Washington Post's internet site today. "Breakaway wealth" touched on many aspects of income disparities in the United States, a hot-button topic in a time of economic distress for so many. Some of the very wealthy executives found something immoral about making vast sums of money ... saw it as a force that would lower morale among the workers who created that income. Others seemed to rest easy in the assurance that greed has become more acceptable within the social fabric. Whether any of this is true is hard to determine, but it does seem to be one reasonable conclusion.

But the collective results of income disparity led the CIA's World Factbook to an interesting observation:

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, which uses the so-called “Gini coefficient,” a common economic indicator of inequality, the United States ranks as far more unequal than the European Union and the United Kingdom. The United States is in the company of developing countries — just behind Cameroon and Ivory Coast and just ahead of Uganda and Jamaica.
Third World status.

Aside from encouraging pity parties laced with white whining, the broad spectrum of accumulated wealth and accumulated poverty is too confounding in its breadth and depth. People are left with a vague sense that things "are unfair," but no real energy to do much ... the problems are too big and they are too little. It is easier to issue a judgment or set up a glossy bias than to look into the matter of greed.

But the blowback of greed is as evident in anyone's heart as it is in The Washington Post. No one is too little for the problem of them selves. This is something about which they can, in fact, do something. But what?

My hunch is that the first step is to turn down the volume on "good" and "bad." Greed is a word that carries a negative connotation so the first thing anyone who wants to think well of himself does is to consider greed as "bad." The result of continuing to think of greed as bad is a series of half-measures that will act to replace what is "bad" with something that is "good." Volunteer for something, work at a soup kitchen, send a donation to a worthy cause ... you know, the "good" stuff. This yardstick seems to boil down to, "It's nicer to be nice than it is to be nasty." And perhaps it is, but it doesn't really address the problem. Camouflage, yes. Solution, no.

Anyway, I think turning down the volume on "good" and "bad" stands a better chance of solving the problem of blowback. I am greedy in much the same way that I am six-feet-plus tall. It's a fact. And this fact has implications in my life. Acquisitiveness (what others sometimes wrongly refer to as "materialism") is part of my make-up. I buy. But more than just buy, I grasp ideas and beliefs that create my persona. I hold on tight. Ebeneezer Scrooge has got nothing on me. Buddhists may tell me that attachments cause sorrow and uncertainty, but until I look that one in the eye, personally, I'm still stuck with the "good" and "bad" shtick, the one that creates little more than more "good" and "bad."

What are the facts and why would I want to look them in the eye? Isn't giving a bum a handout or taking advantage of the latest sale at Target enough? I'm not a bad person. The problem is that the uncertainty remains. A sense of peace and stability eludes me, however "good" I become. I may be nice to others, but "what about me?"

What about me? This is an excellent question. The facets twinkle invitingly in the sunlight, but the gem from which those facets are cut is elusive. What about me?! When do I get mine?! When do I get to be as rich as the rich people around me who are not only rich, but have life so much easier than my own in my imagination? It can seem to be a war within ... striving and striving and somehow never coming home.

A Somali security analyst once summed up the problem of piracy in the Pacific and Indian oceans: "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you." What about me? When do I get to be wealthy? And what is this sense of poverty? Where is my wealth? What about me?

For those who prefer not to go on creating the conditions for war, the conditions for poverty, there has to be some effort. First, what is the problem? What are the facts ... not the "good" or "bad" facts, just the facts? Second, find the willingness and determination to investigate thoroughly. It's not an easy job, but ending wars is never easy. And this war is particularly thorny because the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are the same guys. The greed of others is a cakewalk. My own greed can, on investigation, appear endlessly subtle. On and on and on it goes. Further and further down the rabbit hole of me. But what other option is there but to continue to watch, to see, as if for the first time, that which leaves me uncertain and afraid and floundering in goodness.

Such an effort may start with the notion of gold stars to mark success, but the determined effort, in the end, makes no room, has not energy for, gold stars. This investigation has to be done because ... because nothing else makes any sense. No other investigation holds any water. Indeed, even this investigation holds no water. It comes and goes like the breath ... moment after moment. It begins with me and ends with precisely the same me ... but different.

How different? Very different and yet not different at all.

Same old breathing, right?

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