Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Freedom in Poverty

Reading canto XI of the Paradiso, I was really interested in the portrayal of St. Francis as the groom of poverty. He asked her hand in marriage, rather than just being unlucky enough to know her. I find this amazing, and I am saddened to think this is something that is denied to most of us. Not that I think we can't be poor; I am in fact very poor myself and will probably spend the next decade dealing with student loan repayment, etc. What I wish is that I could embrace Poverty in a radical way like St. Francis did.
We live in a society where this sort of radical poverty isn't really possible anymore. One may be ascetic, but you can't eat by gleaning. You can't be without running water, because there are laws regulating our standard of living! No one can go live in the wilderness like Thoreau and the Desert Fathers did; the wild is either private or public property, and you'd be arrested for squatting. Likewise, if I pick a fruit from someone's orchard, it's a crime. There is almost no way to ask Poverty's hand in marriage anymore.
When Dante described Amyclas, who found absolute freedom in absolute poverty, it reminded me of a song by LaRue that says "I don't feel like I've got anything to give, so I guess I've got nothing to lose." This is a Christian band and they are talking about poverty of spirit or ability, but I think there is something beautiful in the idea that poverty frees us from fear. When you have nothing to give, you have nothing to lose. It is easier to give, the less you have; just look at the parishioners of churches on the Mexican/US border and compare them to the churches up north. Or compare the poor widow in Luke to the rich people in the temple, who gave a tiny percent of their income away. Or consider all the poor women who coordinated the early disciples' travels, providing food and beds.
Our society demands we have certain things, and while I'm not arguing that it's necessarily bad (I love having running water and electricity), it does mean that we spend a lot of our lives trying to maintain all these things, and there is never a limit to what you need. I don't think our culture is greedy per se, because the only way to 'make it' nowadays is to meet a set of expectations that continues to burgeon outward. Someday I'll have my student loans paid off, but as an English Professor there will be so much more expected of me. If I'm ever a wife, I'll be responsible to help maintain a household, and there will be a lot of pressure to have a dual income household, to buy a house, to have two cars, to have nice furniture in my house; when I have children, I'll be responsible to provide for them, and the expectation is that I will help them go to school, get cars, etc. etc. A lot of parents can't do that, or don't care to do that, but they experience pressure for it. The pressure to have nice things increases with age and prestige. If I am a 'professional' (as compared to a cashier) I will be expected to have even more. On the one hand, I can't wait to be done with school so I can have my dream job and make more money. On the other hand I see my older brothers and friends and think, if being 'grown-up' means dedicating your life to the accumulation of property I would rather be a student forever.
I wish that I could embrace poverty. I hate stuff. I have way too much stuff. In my ideal world, we all wear sweats everyday because they're comfortable, and we don't care if we look good. We all eat local food, and all you have to do is grow it and pick it. We all just travel as much as we want, and don't have to worry about maintaining a 'home base' with all the utilities. I envy the freedom of St. Francis, and of Amyclas. Of course, I say 'ideal' because I don't think I could reach this in any case. It's just a nice dream.


Annette said...

You should read "Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism" a textbook by Richard H. Robbins that I'm reading in my Anth 380 class right now. Everything you're talking about in this post comes right from that book. The pressure on adults to accumulate stuff is a fairly recent phenomenon. The culture of capitalism was developed around the turn of the 20th century, when department stores and advertising completely revolutionized the way people shopped and thought and felt about money. Frugality used to be considered a virtue, and now instant gratification and therefore buying things on credit and going into debt is highlighted as just the way things go.

Even the nuclear family model can be "blamed" on capitalism, organizing families into neat little consumer packets, with a head of household, and de-emphasizing extended networks of families.

It's quite interesting, nevertheless. And the thing I will say is: you have a choice in some of this. You can choose to have two cars or you can live in a place where you can bike, use the bus, and other alternative transportation primarily. You can choose to have a gargantuan mansion, or you can live more humbly, in a smaller, more efficient abode. You can fight the pressures of advertising agencies to buy buy buy! Contrary to what they would have you believe, you don't NEED an iPod, the newest style of boots, 16 pairs of jeans, or a plasma TV to be happy.

Or you can mindlessly submit yourself to the capitalist powers that be. It's still a choice that you have.

Hell's Belle said...

well durr. I intend to make choices that will be for the greater good as opposed to my own gratification! but I agree with your comments. What I really wanted to talk about is how some expectations are out of our control to meet; i.e. I have to eat and I can't steal food from a local orchard, etc. The culture of consumerism is partially out of our control