Drunk in a World of Material Wealth


Arlo Guthrie, a few years ago…

I’ve been thinking, lately, how we manage to skew the world so that it looks like we’re all middle class.  This is particularly true (or I’m paying particular attention) in the world of recreational cycling.  By that, I mean pretty much all cycling including races where the cash value of the largest prize can be expected to be a small fraction of the price of the winner’s bike.

Here’s how it started.  I’m one of those lucky people whose bike is worth almost as much as their car.  Of course, my car only cost $2,000.

Now, you probably had one of two reactions to that statement.  Either you chuckled a little to yourself because you got the in-joke (“Oh, man, his bike cost less than $2,000?”), or you were shocked at my profligacy (“He spent $2,000 on a bicycle?”).  Which reaction you had says something about you.  I’m going to focus on the first one.

My thoughts about all this began when I inadvertently kicked off a price vs. value argument on one of the cycling message boards I frequent.  My new bicycle has a fitting for this thing.  There are a very limited number of versions of this thing.  Most are made by small European or American  workshops and cost $200-$300.  This, I felt, was more than I wanted to spend on such an item.  However, I found a similar item that—with minor modifications—would serve the same function, but for only $30 at a large cycling supply house.

I posted a question as to whether or not anyone had tried using said bag with modifications, and got some interesting responses.  The most useful was from someone who had used the same item for the same purpose as I intended, but found that the thing proved inadequate after two years of continuous use and failed, and subsequently spent north of $200 for a European-built replacement.  But I also started hearing from people who said, in so many words, “you get what you pay for.”

Simultaneously, on another cycling board, a discussion was starting up regarding wristwatches.  Costly wristwatches.  One of the comments read thus:

a watch or whatever is what you make it

last time i checked, the US isnt a third world country.
why eat steak when a hot dog is fine?
why drink glenlivet when jack daniels is fine?
why ride a serotta when a huffy is fine?
why ride campy when shimano is fine? 😉
why bother spending *any* money at all on a timex when the free watch that comes with a happy meal is fine?
bottom line for [redacted]…if the idea of owning that watch, if it makes you smile, get it.

And I can understand that attitude.  After all, I own multiple guitars, multiple excellent guitars.  I don’t ride a huffy.  I write with a fountain pen that cost an arm and a leg.  I have a computer and a laser printer, for pete’s sake.

So yeah, I can get behind this idea. 

Until I stop thinking and start feeling.

See, I came from that generation where my parents used to talk to me about wasted food in terms of “children starving in China.”  In other words, my parents were teaching me that we lived in a world that either was, or was close to, zero-sum.  This is a scary idea.

It suggests that for all of the advances in healthcare, medicine, fertilizer, etc., etc.—for all that stuff that can get passed around—not everyone can have the same amount.  Or, as a slogan about wealth distribution once went, “The five get twenty, and the twenty get five.”

Another slogan (I first heard it in the ‘70s, but no reason it couldn’t be older):  Live simply, that others may simply live.

Slogans oversimplify things terribly, no question.  But I like this one.  I like nice things, as I think I’ve said before.  I like having a bike that shifts smoothly, a pen that writes well, a bag that fits my needs, a guitar that feels a part of me.  And there’s nothing wrong with having those things, in my opinion.  But there may be an issue with wanting those things.

It seems to me that we—you and I—are very much “drunk in a world of material wealth.”  Cat Stevens noted that you can “get what you want to if you want, ’cause you can get anything.”

Cat Stevens

So how do we get off?  How do we get sober?  It’s far too easy to say “be happy with what you have.”  That’s easy for those of us who already have.  It’s a lot harder for the twenty who get five.  So I’d like to make a proposal.  It’s not well thought-out, and I welcome all comments on how to make it better.

1.  When you contemplate your life and realize that you have more than enough, stop acquiring things.  Enjoy what you have.  Reflect on what you have, and whether you need it.

2.  If you have children, teach them to care for others, and give them enough without giving them too much.  Don’t saddle your children with stuff  they don’t need.

3.  Distribute the rest.  Either now, or when you die, or sometime in between.  As much as I love my old Martin guitar, for example, there is no one among my children who will appreciate it for what it is.  That isn’t a bad thing…each has their own appreciation of the world and its contents.  Perhaps by the time I pass I will have a grandchild who plays guitar; but if that’s not the case, then it should go to someone who can use it and use it well.

I’m sorry that this is devolving into maudlin sentiment rather than reason.  I know what I want to say and do, but I find that the chains of material wealth (and make no mistake, anyone who has their own computer is wealthy) constrain me.  So all I have are bromides:

Tread lightly.

Be nice.

Be kind.

Know and realize that the things we have around us are mere things, and that they will decay. 

You don’t have to be religious to understand that there is something wrong in a world where some people have whatever they want and others starve to death.  And you don’t have to be religious to want to do something about that.

Just human.

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