Saturday, January 03, 2009

Loot Epilogue

When I started posting about my Christmas gifts, I noted that I felt a little uncomfortable about doing so, and had decided only reluctantly to go ahead. I've been wondering why I felt like it was tacky.

It seems to mostly boil down to a bit of good old fashioned liberal success guilt. I'm doing okay enough, despite the current financial meltdown, to be able to afford gifts, even things that are pretty darned frivolous. Lots of other people aren't; people are struggling to make rent and pay hospital bills. Even a number of people I know.

I answer my own concerns in the usual ways. First, I know that we give more to charity than most people in our income bracket, and we also spend more time ensuring that that money is being used well; we carefully evaluate charities, and then distribute our funds over those who can do the most good, with a solid split between preserving the concerns of the past, present, and future. But I still wish I were doing more. Apparently, though, I don't wish that enough to give up having cool gadgets, just enough to not have all the cool gadgets I'd like, only some of them.

Second, I know that I'm doing as well as I am because of earlier times in my life when I struggled through having little but looking to the future anyway. To put it glibly, that I paid my dues, lived through times working crappy jobs, barely making rent, and not splurging on almost anything. Sensible fiscal management, hard work, enough ambition to make things happen and prepare the way for opportunities so I could take advantage of them when they came. Plus playing it safe: for instance, not pursuing promotions and better pay that would have included more risk, which turns out in hindsight to be a good choice, given what's happening to the economy.

But there's plenty of luck in there too, starting with the luck of happening to be born with a talent for something that turned out to be saleable, and continuing with lots of places things went right or didn't go wrong. Some of luck is about living the life that lets you deflect the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and capitalize on the random opportunities as they pass you by; but some of it is just plain luck. It's oversimplifying to say people make their own lives just as much as it's oversimplifying to say they have no control.

Is there anything in my situation that really differs from that of other people around me? Probably not. Everyone I know can think of people (often me) who are doing better than they are, and maybe some of them are envious; but at the same time, everyone I know can think of people who are doing worse, and if they were so inclined, could feel guilty about not sacrificing more for those people. Everyone I know has something frivolous in their lives they could give up if they wanted to. Everyone's decided to find some balance point between attending to themselves and others. And everyone's concluded that a certain amount of frivolity is in fact a need: there's a human need to have some things you don't actually need, to preserve some mental health which grants the strength to face the other non-frivolous things.

"Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied until he rules everything." The antidote to rapacious avarice is contentment. But to be content, at least in real life instead of in idealistic aphorisms, don't you have to feel like you have enough that maybe you should have made a few sacrifices, stayed hungry a little, to better someone else? Maybe contentment can be an ill when it's not balanced against avarice and ambition too.

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