“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
– Seneca, circa 4 B.C.
Admittedly, I grew up in the Stone Age. At least that’s what it sounds like to my grandchildren when I describe my life two generations ago. A succession of rented, poorly built homes with few amenities, or whatever my father could afford, were a far cry from what these young ones deem normal today.
I judge not – one understands little what one has never known – and I don’t regret the sturdy, make-do routines of the past which help me understand the philosopher’s description of what it really means to be rich or poor. Still, somewhere along my increasingly affluent way, I needed a refresher course in that understanding, which I experienced during a visit to Turkey several years ago.
“Do you have a washing machine?”
Gulderin, my Turkish host, was wheeling a small washer from the closet into her also small kitchen. Most of the time she did her laundry by hand, but today she would know the luxury of washing sheets and towels in the tiny machine. She wondered if I were so privileged.
I winced, knowing that my extra large, heavy-duty automatic stood beside other built-ins, and I could wash a household of sheets and towels in one load instead of four.
“Yes, Gulderin,” I replied, “I have a washing machine” – and a dryer, too, I didn’t dare add, as I helped her carry wet, clean laundry outside to dry.
Once or twice a month it was Gulderin’s turn to use the portable family machine. But even if she had a built-in like mine, there wouldn’t be enough hot water to do laundry more often than that. With five adults in the apartment that week, we alternated taking 3- to 4-inch baths or rinsing under a quick hand shower because the 7-gallon water heater, which was expensive for our hosts to maintain, offered only limited possibilities.
I thought of my 50-gallon, continuous hot water supply at home, enough for a load of laundry and two or three baths. Yes, I told her, I also had a hot water heater – and two full baths and a hot water faucet in the kitchen, too.
“Do you have a car?” she asked later, as we walked up the hill to catch a bus.
This was getting embarrassing. “Yes, I have a car. We almost have to in the States,” I added apologetically. “We live so far from everything, you know.”
Yes, I also had a microwave, a refrigerator that held more than a day’s supply of food and a living room larger than her four rooms combined.
By the world’s standards, Gulderin and her family are not considered poor, but are better off than many. In some of the world’s countries, families of four live in 2-3 rooms, share bedrooms, primitive baths and living space, and thank God for their blessings.
With so much pre-election talk about our poor economy, I can’t help wishing those who are crying out for better-paying jobs, more government entitlements, lower taxes and enough money to meet the payments on their $100,000-plus homes, or purchase a second or third car, could visit Gulderin.
To some degree we all consider ourselves among our country’s unfortunate, those for whom more income or a new government program would make it possible to enjoy some kind of lifestyle above what we are experiencing now. But to every degree imaginable, all but a few Americans live royally in comparison to the rest of the world and, at last count, we have 44 safety-net/anti-poverty programs for those who do not.
“The trouble with us,” someone has said, “is that we think our standard of living is a given, and it’s not.”
No, it’s not. It’s not pleasant to go backward, to give up pleasures and the conveniences to which we have become accustomed, or to bypass a cherished plan because the resources aren’t available. But it’s not fatal when we have to do just that. One of my greatest blessings, I’ve learned in adulthood, is that Stone Age, poorhouse preparation which taught me at least the threshold of wanting little more at any given time than what I already have.
In this election year, I pray we do not elect someone president, or to any level of leadership, just because he or she promises another chicken in our multiple, stainless-steel, copper-bottomed pots or another bath in our already above-average homes.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer and author of the book, As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)