A Failure of Imagination

Allan David Smith-Reeve, September 6, 2019

Instead of working to “fix” poverty and “the poor” – which is not working no matter how many resources we throw at it. Why not get creative about ways to redistribute the abundant wealth so many of us enjoy.

If poverty is not the problem, then what is the problem?

Greed is such an ugly word. Not a word I’d use to describe the motivations of my middle class friends. Their desires for comfort, and even luxury, are considered “normal” by the Canadian standards we tend to use.

At the busy doorway of Costco this week, I pulled out my wallet looking for my card. I had a loose wad of cash in it – fresh from the credit union. As I opened the wallet a wind whipped the cash from my hand and strewed it across the parking lot like falling leaves.

“Whoohoo!” exclaimed the crowd as they scurried to pick up the bills.

Ten twenty-dollar bills were returned to my hands. All of it. Not a greedy bone in the crowd. When there’s a need – Peterborough folks deliver time and again. So how have we failed to redistribute our wealth, our reservoir of joy?

The crowds I join at Costco, make me think of a stream of ants. Busily coming and going.  Taking my “hard-earned cash” to save money by spending it. I often take away more stuff than I knew I needed. Dollars spent there are dollars not spent at local shops. Dollars sucked from our local economy. Normal.

Science has created a term for the unsatisfactory nature of pursuing pleasure – the “hedonistic treadmill”.

Hedonism is an ancient religion. Named for the ancient Greek school of thought that celebrates the pursuit of pleasure as life’s ultimate goal. This philosophy appears in every culture in different guises. The Charvaka school is a version rooted in India.  Siduri, the female divinity of fermentation admonishes “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night…these things alone are the concern of men.”

The wisdom found in the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes is thought to echo much of the even more ancient wisdom of Egypt. The author pursues a social experiment…

I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.

“Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil… What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. (Ecclesiastes 2)

Social Scientists have measured and found that the more we experience any pleasure – the more we become numb to its effects. We begin to take its pleasures for granted. Like a drug that must be taken in every greater doses to produce the same effect – pleasure creates its own “new normal”.

“In many ways, hedonism is the default philosophy of most people and certainly has become the dominant view of consumer “shop til you drop” culture.”

So says Douglas Abrams in “The Book of Joy”. Abrams interviews his holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu over a seven day historic session pursuing the roots of Joy. In the first day they name it:

The Virtuous Cycle: The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others.

The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves, but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”

Some excerpts:

The more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others. But in a surprising way – the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others. 

Joy and pain are in-extrinsically linked. A fundamental secret – although it’s a secret hidden in plain sight – in every holy book – is that to discover joy one must go beyond our own self-centeredness.

 “We human beings are social animals. We need friends. Genuine friends. We are created to flourish, to share who we are and receive from one another – in community. When we become self-centered – turning our focus in on our own desires, needs, and self-gratifications – as sure as anything – we are going to one day find ourselves with a deep, deep, deep frustration.”

With all of our great systems of charity and relief, how have we failed to create the friendships? When our hearts are honest and generous – how have we failed to imagine ways to redistribute our wealth?  

For to the one who pleases God (serves community) God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the fool (who serves self) God gives the work of gathering and heaping.

Is it really a lack of resources? Can we really blame those who are doing their best with the little they have?

Or, have we failed to use our divine gifts of curiosity and imagination to create enough joy to go around? Is our reservoir of joy so shallow?

Next time I’ll tell you about the luxury cruise I took this summer. (the pursuit of a happiness bubble on a boat)