“Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.”
Nobody wants to be poor. It may seem even more drastic to be poor in America, the richest nation on earth, which is why Steinbeck’s phrase stating that poor people in America see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” hits close to home. And perhaps it hits especially close to home this year, as the flurry of articles discussing the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty that greeted January 1st suggested.
Why is the poverty rate still high? Why have we not won the poverty war yet? Inequality is our most pressing and troublesome problem! We shouldn’t pay attention to the poverty rate! Those are some of the commoner themes, and since they all discuss the more obvious and pressing aspects of American poverty quite adequately, yet leave one interesting perspective out, I thought it’d be interesting to kick around the idea nobody seems to have aired: we (meaning us Americans) are all poor and meek, and thus, seem perfectly set to inherit the earth if we so choose.
This isn’t a setup to a religious fulmination. Rather, it’s a simple recognition that we are all poor in spirit most of the time (defining spirit as the non-corporeal human essence, closely tied to conscious rational thought). Few people I know actually do ooze self-satisfied contentment and peace from every pore, like a personal golden-molasses cloud, and one of them is three years old. Most people seem to dwell on a scale of “all right” or “good” to “meh” most of the time. We simply don’t have that electric vivid connection of spirit to eternity, by which I mean a deeply felt and thought recognition of our place and purpose in the world.
This phenomenon is fairly common. If earlier generations didn’t seem to have this problem, it was because they held on to a few core beliefs that were much more popular, and moreover had much harder lives. People who are scrambling for food don’t usually indulge much time in philosophical navel-gazing or existential bemoaning. The instance previous generations did arrive at a similar material status with ample leisure, odd things began to happen.
In imperial Rome, emperors began to go insane, or indulge in the most fantastic of luxuries and vices. In Renaissance Europe, noblemen and noblewomen sought to fill their poverty of spirit with scheming and extravagance, while those who were truly poor were too harried to worry about spirit. The supposedly idyllic 1950s era in America led to the deep divisions and ugly bared underside of society in the 1960s.
Thus the vicious divide cuts us in two. We have an indefinable itch to matter, belong, connect and share. Yet we connect and share to what we can touch and taste and see because we’re chained to our physicality. It’s much easier to prove to ourselves we matter when we can see we own things that other people care about, like beauty or an excellent bar or a sprawling mansion. Yet when we achieve these things, we realize that nothing matters to others for very long unless they also can possess it, and if it doesn’t connect us or make us belong, then it also doesn’t matter to us.
(Why don’t millionaires hang out with those in much, much lower tax brackets? After all, it’s not as if personalities differ so dramatically; many millionaires and billionaires have fairly modest tastes.)
Hence the happy medium. Those who are just wealthy enough to avoid the constant scramble to survive, yet not so wealthy that they possess things beyond the reach of most, possibly have it best. A study has indicated happiness levels related to income reach their peak potential at $75,000 a year. But not for very long, and not certainly.
The reasons for that are rooted once again in the fact we are physical beings with superior reasoning powers (I’d use the word souls, but humanity’s higher brain function alone suffices to establish the point). We’re trammeled by time, and thus age, decay and finally die, while having spent most of our lives working to obtain that security that allows the happy medium. And while that work may be a scramble at times, or a constant fear for an unlucky sizable percentage of humanity, because we are fairly negative creatures we worry about it constantly.
And thus we discuss the poverty rate. Not only from sheer altruistic concern, but also from reasonable supposition that if we can improve the lot of our fellow women and men it’ll improve our lot as well if something were to go wrong. Plus, enriching your neighbor may possibly enrich you. Show someone the power of compounding interest, and they’ll save more, which in turn can drive up her or his fiscal health and spending power; a person who spends a bit more locally makes a difference, even if we can’t quite see it in action.
Show someone the effect on their hillside topsoil of cutting down several trees, planting monocultures and mowing with a tractor, and they’ll probably act to conserve their soil. People aren’t foolish or wasteful on purpose all the time. Generally we all want to be happy and successful and useful. Unfortunately, we don’t always stop to consider the impact of our actions, or how best to achieve happiness, or even know how to do so. Sometimes we think that the only way to get ahead is to push others down. But there are few situations in life that are zero-sum games.
It all comes down to the perception of time. A good deed done has ripple effects beyond what we can possibly hope to even imagine, and yet, they have a measurable impact not only on your mood but also on the mood of those around you. For the effect they have on your mood alone, they are worth doing…beyond the immediate altruistic motivation, of course. So how does this tie back into being meek?
Well, the fact is that meek possesses a negative connotation these days. We think of meek as weak, as the ultimate in passivity. And yet the actual dictionary definition of meek renders “quiet” and “gentle” before submissive…and is submissive such a bad thing, in and of itself? We all submit every hour of our lives to many things that are not bad at all, but rather are somewhat admirable; for instance, letting an elderly person take our seat on the bus. That is submitting to an other’s desire, yet we do it without a thought. Submission isn’t a bad word; but it’s treated as such.
And yet, isn’t being meek what could yield all the results desired from the issues we saw above? If I was more meek, to take the only immediate subject of which I have intimate knowledge, perhaps I would not only give up my bus seat, but perhaps I would also calmly submit to someone’s frustration at work. Perhaps I’d respond to some angry outburst with calm patience, or perhaps I’d hesitate from taking a long hot shower, thinking of my roommate or neighbors who may be more weary and desirous of a scalding soak than I. Would those measures really matter, in the long run? Perhaps not, and yet, perhaps they might.
They’d probably make me happier, for one. To hearken back to the point I made earlier about how we are all poor in spirit, or meek most of the time anyways, it seems pretty natural, at least. It’s not about letting go of your needs or what you deserve, but rather about calmly accepting the fact that others’ needs are equal to your own. It’s quite difficult, at least for me; I routinely will sit on the bus after standing and working all day and not want to give my seat up, or will take a long hot shower to shave and soak just to have some time to relax. Basically I resent the slightest intrusion on what I thought would be a free evening…but these are such small matters.
Everyone has far greater matters that they deal with every day, and everyone makes sacrifices daily that are usually greater than the ones I contemplate. But it’s hard to visualize the ripple effects of our actions, because we have rather limited brains and imaginations. I cannot imagine what a kind word may do to a stranger…or even if I do, my imagination is rarely up to the task of becoming a habit. It takes 21-66 days to form such a habit, and I rarely have the fortitude to establish such a practice.
But that is only due to my lack of knowledge and foresight. It’s due to my lack of perception of the importance of cycles; that which seems difficult now will seem very easy soon enough…and yet difficult once more in a little while longer. Recognizing all the factors that make habits difficult to obtain makes them those same difficulties bearable. Understanding that such habits are what build to success over time is much harder, as we all crave external recognition and yet internal recognition is all we often get.
Yet within that internal validation lies the ultimate validation of effort. Doing a job well, simply because doing it well is pleasing and worthwhile, is what really is satisfying in the end. That recognition and internal validation is powerful enough to solve the difficulties within the issues listed above. I’ll be satisfied with fewer hot showers, or only cold showers, or less meat, or maybe little to no bathing at all (at some point, I’m fairly sure that there would be public outcry), if only that means that no coal is burnt to provide energy for my building. I’ll gripe and moan to an nigh-unbearable extent, but eventually I’ll forget what hour-long hot soaks felt like, and I’ll barely miss them. (The nice perks of our inconstant brains.)
(Of course, if my building’s energy source is renewable, I’m perfectly content to turn my bathroom into a den of decadence.)
And this lack of consumption is not to simply punish. Rather, it is a practiced restraint so that natural and human resources are not overdrawn. The benefits of this are obvious; with surplus of supply and lack of use, prices go down and markets correct. Fewer people eating meat means fewer feedlots and factory farms. The more people carefully repair their gadgets and devices instead of simply tossing them in the waste bin, then the more we can conserve rare-earth metals and reduce groundwater.
The above may sound like a rant of a vaguely moralistic Luddite. However, I am not against over-consumption, as anyone who’s seen me near a bag of salt-and-pepper chips can attest. I’ll happily over-consume many things: sunlight, swimming, books, movies, and more. The thing is, everyone knows the obvious truth facing today’s society: a sizable portion over-consumes nonrenewable resources because it’s easier than consuming just enough. In fact, what really is just enough? I don’t know, because that’s a pretty difficult measure to determine. A person with a medical issue simply needs to consume more energy and resources than I do, which is perfectly fair. It seems that we’ll simply have to determine on an individual basis what consumption is actually justifiable.
Back to the Main Point
The thing about equalizing consumption is that it benefits everyone in the long run. Right now, there’s a sizable drought in parts of California, and thousands of people are cutting back on water consumption.
Isn’t that being submissive? Aren’t they all submitting to the collective need? It may seem an obvious foregone conclusion that people cut back in times of need, but my point is that being meek is not something that is alien to us, and frankly, it is something that needs to be omnipresent in our lives.
Meekly acknowledging the demands of millions of others around us and subsuming individual needs at times is what we all do already, and it’s what’ll conserve what really matters in the end…the earth. All that we hold dear derives from two sources: human capital and the earth. We don’t take the former for granted. The meek don’t presume to take the latter for granted.
And to wrap it all up and return tenuously to the introduction, such conservation and responsible consumption is what could possibly renew the poverty of spirit that being meek supposedly engenders. If I take the time to note the quality of the soil in the pots on my patio, and I devote a few minutes every day to watering and caring for them, then I’ll feel that much more rooted to my apartment block, and neighborhood, and the earth in general. Sure, it’ll be tedious and taxing at times, but that is how value is created: sweat and devotion of our scarce time.
As for the issue of poverty, that is far too complex for me to tackle. I will make this observation, however, that is virtually a recap of what Wendell Berry has been saying for decades: poverty wouldn’t be such a pressing issue if each person could at least be assured of strong connections to their place and neighborhood and neighbors, as well as a small patch of land on which they could grow some food. He’s not alone; I’ve written about Roy Prosterman before, who advocates for land rights worldwide, which has done much to end poverty in many regions. And it makes sense. If I have a small piece of land to call my own on which I can at least reside or raise some animals or grow some crops, if I am unemployed, at the very least I may have a chance at still producing the food I require. There are a whole host of other benefits, such as community interaction, neighborliness, psychological and physical health.
The last benefit, of course, is responsible conservation, as everyone has the motivation to take good care of their own property. And such conservation may be meek, because it implies careful tending of your own property, and a reduction in what we are accustomed to…but we will have inherited the earth.
P.S. The above is mainly focused on the environmental and social aspects of meekness, yet after reading an excellent post from adfinesterrae, I recalled the possibly more positive aspect of meekness: it really is the quietness of authority and strength choosing when and where to exert that strength, or even relinquishing it for the general good.