“She’s that rich American lady.”
While I’ve never been referred to as “rich” in America, I have no doubt that it has been said about me here in Kenya. Hawkers move their prices upward and distant acquaintances ask for loans based on that assumption. Strangers approach me asking for employment.
Of course I’m wealthy. We are making American salaries in a country where the cost of living is a fraction of what it is back home. I have a laptop. I drive a car. I take trips around the country – for fun. I have house help. Hell, I have electricity and indoor plumbing. I buy indulgences like cheese and chocolate, each costing the equivalent of a local day’s wage.
At the same time, we have tens of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans. Things like saving for our children’s education and retirement weigh heavy on our shoulders. We budget ourselves and say "no" to things we want. Unlike some of our expat friends, we don’t have a washing machine, a generator, or a compound kept green by sprinklers. Unlike our friends back in the US, we don’t own a home. All of our permanent possessions fill a the corner of my parent's basement. I think of what it means to be “rich” in America and laugh at the prospect that I might be included in that group.
But I know I’m rich here.
It’s an uncomfortable tension, feeling simultaneously rich and lacking.
Obviously how you feel about what you have depends a lot on what your neighbors have. So, it all depends on who you consider your neighbors. Here our neighbors span the global extremes.
A new study just came out that showed that over 70% of Americans with over $1 million in investable assets (people clearly in the top 1% of one of the wealthiest countries in the world) do not consider themselves “wealthy.” Why? They can’t do everything they want with the money they have. And “everything they want” we can assume is defined by what they see others doing with their money.
Still, there’s something irrational here. Sure, some of these millionaires might be on the lower part of the economic ladder in their very expensive neighborhood. They didn’t get to take the same luxury cruise that the Jones’s did. But the law of averages tells us it wouldn’t be 70%. So, the rich, and probably most of us, are actively choosing to look upward and focusing on what we don’t have instead of looking around and appreciating what we do.
Is this human nature? Maybe. Some would argue it – that drive for more wealth – is what keeps us growing, innovating and developing. Maybe. But it might also be what’s keeping us running in increasing numbers to the therapist's couch. It might be what keeps us from ever feeling satisfied.
But, in a lot of ways feeling rich or poor is a choice. I have two extremely different comparison groups to choose from.
The problem is when I look at my relative wealth, I feel fortunate but also incredibly uneasy about it. Even though I've worked hard for what I have, I know that most of it is attributable to the geographic accident of my birth. I'm surrounded by smart and hard-working people who, despite their gifts and efforts, will never achieve this wealth. In that way I don't necessarily "deserve" what I have. Maybe none of us do.
When I look at those who have more than me I have to admit feel a longing, and maybe a very subtle sense of relative failure. Even though I don't care about a whit about things like luxury items or brand names and have a slightly communistic bent, those feelings still sometimes creep through.
Neither direction is all that satisfying.
So, I'll settle on this: I'll look at what I have and feel... thankful, lucky. I won't stop feeling guilty, but I'll try and use that feeling to inspire generosity and compassion instead of defensiveness. I'll spend what we need to be comfortable and try and comfortable with basic things. I'll look at those who have more than me and and then shrug and look away.
In which direction do you look when you think about your wealth? How do you cope with what you see?