I had a little bakery on the Thai-Cambodian border in the early 60’s. It was little more than a shack, but big enough for me and my common law Thai wife, her mother, brother, and sister (1). Most of the customers were Thai peasants who would stop by for some sponge cake on their return from the town market. Being partial to sponge cake myself, business never grew — I ate up most of the profits! After rising early to bake the day’s offerings, I’d sit at the front of the shop and swat at flies while awaiting customers.
This and other experiences in Asia over the years gave me intimate insight into the lives of peasants. I was virtually one myself, at least financially speaking. Although I never worked long days in the rice fields, I had settled into what amounted to a peasant life style.
Fast-forward about a decade to Sweden. There I settled into an area of Stockholm inhabited by the wealthiest Swedes including the King himself. I never settled into a Swedish life style though, because my earlier S.E. Asian peasant-like one felt more comfortable. I couldn’t help notice and compare the lives of the upper class folks I came to know there with the peasants I had lived among in Asia. One thing stood out like a sore thumb: these wealthy folks seemed no happier than poor Thai peasants. If anything, they even seemed a bit less so.
Looking back, I understand it better. Living beings live out their days struggling against the inevitable entropic path — birth, growth, decay and death — that Buddha’s First Truth addresses. The struggle to survive lies at the instinctive core of life’s DNA. In the case of peasants, this struggle is fully engaged in the simple operation of basic survival. Not so for wealthier folk. As a result, into what does a wealthier person’s struggle instinct sink its teeth? It certainly isn’t striving for down-to-earth practical survival!
On the other side of this struggle instinct in life’s equation is the innate drive to seek happiness. Let’s call that the contentment instinct. Like the ‘fight or flight’ equation, each living thing must find its balance between struggle and contentment. On one hand we stir, move forward, and work; on the other, we are still, return, and rest — so far, so good. When our struggle instinct engages itself in down-to-earth challenges, it is operating closer to the hunter-gatherer circumstances of its evolution.
The innate sense of “more is better” generates ideals of wealth that promise us an escape from nitty-gritty survival challenges. Surely, we feel, we could then live struggle-free, content in utmost comfort and security. Actual success in achieving more-and-more, or as we call it progress, has unintended consequences. What does a wealthier person’s struggle instinct strive for then? DNA is immutable compared to changing circumstances. Simply put, the acquisition of wealth doesn’t neutralize the struggle instinct. Oops! Chapter 16 hints at where ‘progress’ can take us… Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant.
The striking thing I remember from Sweden was how wealthy folk worried about political issues, like the selling of South African grapefruit in Sweden, while Thai peasants worry about practical challenges like the price of lard with which to cook. Being spared from struggling for practical basics can easily make us neurotic and reduce overall contentment and happiness. Actual wealth delivers profoundly less than it promises. This more-is-better illusion is one of nature’s most potent hoodwinks. Instinct overrides reason, and we take nature’s hoodwink bait even though we know that money doesn’t bring happiness (2). As Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God“. So, be aware and beware!
(1) I had planned to settle down in Thailand. When money ran really low I went off to Vietnam to work and save money. The plan was to return with a grubstake and upgrade the bakery. That plan changed, but that’s another story. Suffice to say, at that tender age I lacked the experience to know that plans are little more than visions based on limited experience. Life, on the other hand, flows out moment to moment into what chapter 14 hints is called indistinct and shadowy.
(2) Wealth is relative! If you are starving and you find food, you are profoundly wealthier, at least until your food runs out. The Thai peasants were wealthy relative to the many folks I saw in India, Ethiopia, and Niger, for example. A truer definition of wealth is found in chapter 33’s, He who knows contentment is rich, or as Henry David Thoreau put it, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”. From this standpoint, Mother Theresa’s view that America was ‘poorer’ than India holds water. Mind you, it is not that people in India don’t want to be rich; they do. And when they succeed, they will be as ‘poor’ as we are.
By the way, among other things, wealth ‘frees’ me to struggle at writing down as coherently as possible what I see. Similarly, wealth ‘frees’ you to struggle to see if there is anything coherent, even useful, in what I say. As long as meaningful struggle continues, we are happier than otherwise.