Growing up in a working class family deep in the heart of the Michigan auto industry, I always thought of myself as immune to the arrogance of extreme wealth, as if somehow I were innately more humane in my treatment of others. Any fantasies of prosperity were inevitably accompanied by images of my effervescent generosity as I scattered cash and gifts and opportunities like a veritable Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds of future abundance along every path I trod. Then one day, the dream came true. I joined the upper one percent, and I wasn’t even trying.
It happened years ago, as a graduate student, beginning with a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, then another from the National Science Foundation and then a Fulbright Award. All told, these pots of money – to study access to medicines in the rainforests of Madagascar – were cumulatively significant, well into the six figures once some smaller grants were thrown in. It wasn’t enough to nudge me into the upper crust of my homeland but once in Madagascar, my economic status soared. In a country where the average annual income was less than $250 for a life spent working round the clock, my pot of gold amounted to more wealth than the entire village combined possessed, give or take a few thousand acres of pristine paradise (which they gave, and we took, as a U.S.-funded national park swept in to save their “global” resource).
And so it was that I set off to demonstrate that I was simultaneously “one of them” – by way of my working class origins – and at the same time, “the good rich” – by way of my noble generosity and the power to bestow it. Assuring the village elders that I would provide employment to as many people as possible in exchange for their gracious tolerance of a whacky white woman moving in to pry into their daily lives and take a lot of pictures, I hired my staff. I hired a young woman to cook for me (having flunked out of Girl Scouts, cooking over an open fire every day seemed like a bad idea), another to wash and iron my clothes (yes, really; somehow the thought of wearing wrinkled cotton seemed more preposterous than having a full-grown woman press them with a cast iron pan filled with burning embers, and as long as I could afford to pay her to wash them with fistfuls of sand in crocodile infested waters, I could outsource this risk to life and limb). And I hired a slew of young men with strong backs to haul all my crap across the mountains and build me a new mud home complete with concrete floor and corrugated metal roof. The total cost was minuscule – six hundred for the house, another two hundred for the sacrificial beast to bless it, and about thirty a month for my domestic staff. Thirty five a month went to my high-school educated research assistant who came from a distant city, and I was set.
It wasn’t long before villagers came to me asking for small loans; nothing I couldn’t manage, and nothing I found the slightest bit unreasonable. A few dollars for medicine, some money for chickens, a loan for a pig. No problem. But the more I loaned, the more people showed up asking for more until one day I realized a parade of total strangers had been knocking on my door – alerted to the easy-loan cash I was doling out, people from villages far and wide crossed rivers and hiked over mountains to get to me. After a momentary tirade about not being such a sucker, I finally stopped loaning money except to those I knew.
But still, there were problems. Not only were people viewing me as first and foremost “rich,” (well first and foremost, “white” but those categories tend to overlap in certain parts of the world) but I was also discovering how easily I could buy my way out of any discomfort – paying someone to pick and pound and roast and brew my coffee by dawn, carry my twelve-pound laptop over the mountains because it was much too heavy, heat gallons of water so I could shower in comfort, build me an outhouse so I had some privacy. On and on it went until I resented any discomfort I couldn’t purchase away, just as I resented being viewed only as rich. But irony does have a way of bringing us down to size, just when we think we’ve got it conquered.
When a bird epidemic wiped out all the poultry, not even my immense wealth could buy me a chicken dinner. And when malaria struck and I wasted away in my damp rainforest hut – the mourners howling outside my window awaiting my pending death so they could divvy up my stuff – no amount of money could get me over the mountains and to urban healthcare before I’d expire. The geographical isolation and decrepit infrastructure were enough to deny access to healthcare for even the wealthiest. And when my father sadly did die, no amount of wealth could bring me the news until days later, for the same isolation cut off communication to rich and poor alike (this being the primitive days before cell phones).
Upon learning of my father’s death, the village elders gathered, and brought to me their gift – money. Just as with every death, where the gift of cash is offered to the surviving family as a gesture of caring, and to mitigate the funeral costs, so too was this same gesture extended to me. I protested – I cannot accept this money from you! But I immediately regretted my behavior. To turn away the offering was a great indignity, so with humility and gratitude I accepted the worn, tattered bills, amounting to nothing to me, but a great deal to each of those who gave it.
I still have that money, so worn from the many people who handled it before me – in exchange for some rice, some wages, a chicken, some moonshine or sex – and it is priceless. It is the stark reminder that no amount of wealth can save us from death, from arrogance, or from our own ultimate isolation. And the stark reminder that no amount of poverty can take away one’s dignity, generosity, or humanity when it is called for.
I’m no longer in that one percent, and now in my own homeland, I struggle again with the same concerns of so many others throughout the world. I may know my dinner will be provided tonight, if not by my own hands, then by the speedy delivery of a pizza. And I may know where I will sleep tonight, not in a cold mud hut, but a warm and comforting bed beside the sea. But I no longer know that my home and meals will be provided as I age, that I will be healed if I fall sick and lack access to needed medicines because insurance won’t provide it, that the resources I once used recklessly because they were abundant will be mine for the taking once they turn scarce and out of reach.
Wealth has a way of making itself at home in whatever world we live in. But how that wealth is distributed does change the way we view our place in the world and the place of others who have or do not have it. As comedian Louis C.K. said, now that he sits in first class, he likes to think he would give up his seat to the war veteran sitting in coach, but he never does, finding comfort in the fantasy of doing so. We all want to be better people, yet when given the chance to do so, we often stumble over our own desires and interests and end up even more generous to ourselves.
May we all find ourselves sitting in first class some day, in some way. But most of all, may we all know the humility of what it is to be truly poor, unable to buy ourselves out of our discomforts. Only then can we know the vulnerability of our own powers, and the power of our own vulnerabilities. Therein lies our future, no matter what our past.