The Matter of Prosperity
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Yes, the material matters… but we are so much more prosperous than we think.
In the year prior to my writing this, the international economy has contracted and weakened more than at any time since the Great Depression. The results in personal terms have been difficult and sometimes devastating, with many thousands of people out of work and unable to pay their bills, and even those retaining good jobs are psychologically affected by the uncertainty and panic. One of the ways we deal with the discomfort and stress is by taking comfort in the belief that it somehow doesn’t matter, buying into the unhealthy claim that the physical world is somehow only an illusion and the consequences of our actions and choices less important.
One such news-bedeviled student of mine pulled me aside to ask a question that was weighing on him. “Times are terrible,” he prefaced, citing the shorter hours of work he now gets and listing some of the things he’s now afraid to buy, “but that’s only on the physical plane, right?”
What he wanted was for me to affirm what he’d recently been reading, that all that truly matters is ethereal and disembodied, existing on a higher plane unbeholden to the principles of physics, unaffected by the specter of hunger, the needs of the flesh, the limitations of human effort and enterprise.
In reality, the physical plane is more than setting, housing and vehicle, it is a tangible and directed extension and fruiting of spirit – of the connective anima – and not an alternative to it. It’s where spirit is evident and channeled, manifest and substantial, embodied and actualized. Matter – substance, body, being – matters. It has significance and purpose, even if we are sometimes confused or overwhelmed by the requirements of the physical world and the responsibilities of conscious life. Our lives and bodies are valuable and useful, with any suffering or struggle a price worth paying for the opportunity to not only be consciously aware of but actively participating in the ongoing co-creation of the world we’re an inseparable part of.
It matters then, how healthy our bodies, the exercise we get, the quality of the food we eat. It matters what we live in, not the size and grandiosity of our houses but the precious materials they are constructed of, the history they hold, the warmth and shelter they provide. The land matters in the region where we live, our health and the health of other beings dependent on its well being, the undepleted and unpolluted water sources, the relationships between microbe and soil, soil and plant, plant and human. The wholesale clearcutting of some American forests matters, as does our purchase of electricity produced with coal mined in ways that wounds the earth. And the garden we plant, the hand we hold, the care we give, the stands we take. It matters what we do, if we harm, ignore or help. And while it may be comforting to think otherwise, it does indeed matter that the homes we are buying may have been jeopardized by free wheeling investment strategies, that the cost of food and gasoline generally rises, that not everyone’s career is secure. These are matters worthy of concern and response… but we have far more to feel blessed by and thankful for.
Odd as it may sound, in real terms this country is just as wealthy today as it was before the drop in stock prices. For all the panic and scramble, we still woke up to an America blessed with as many fertile farm fields and polished plows as the week before. With about the same amount of corn rows, accessible minerals, forests, and mechanic’s snap-on wrenches. The same number of experienced workers and craftsmen, capable musicians and caring nurses, libraries full of knowledge and mothers with their children’s best interests at heart. While money and especially credit may be harder to come by right now, most of us have running vehicles, food on our table and enough clothes in our closets to keep us warm (if no longer in style) for a lifetime.
Even if the economy were to do the highly unlikely thing and completely collapse, as a few alarmists are predicting, most of us would prove rich enough in the material reality of our lives to survive for a long time without enjoying further factory output. As the people of post-embargo Cuba have shown, there are sufficient car parts to keep already existing vehicles running, and likely for so long as there is fuel remaining. The rag-pickers of India or Mexico City prove on a daily basis how much real value there is in even the discards of the better off, scouring dumps for usable metal, seeing old or ripped clothes as sources of valuable material. And marooned sailors on uninhabited islands have more than once come to realize how lucky they were to have gathered from the shore “junk” plastic containers capable of carrying water in, wire to fashion into an effective fish hook, or frayed cloth from which they could separate and withdraw long handy sections of golden threads.
I actually predict that there will be another long period of economic growth before the next (most likely environmentally determined) challenge to its viability. But even if I’m wrong and we’re at the brink of awful and irrevocable contraction, we are for the most part each rich in tools as well as potential tools, in object waiting to be recycled for new uses, in raw or separable materials along with the knowhow to utilize them in the innovate new ways our needs and situation dictate. In this country overall, we are still amazingly rich in soil capable of producing life giving food, in spite of the damage done to it by depletion, herbicides and pesticides. We’re rich in able bodies, in easily aroused community spirit, in individual vision, strength, resilience and fortitude. In structures, that if maintained could long keep us out of the rain. Money may be still owed on the family van, but in total economic collapse we would still have it to at least store our well earned produce in.
My point isn’t to suggest taking comfort in the idea of a primitive, make-do survivalist existence, which few of us may ever have to experience… but to feel secure in who we are and what exists under and around us. Whatever else happens in the future, the world will not be suddenly pulled out from under us for the reason that we both inhabit and contain it. We don’t have to suffer the great psychological need for a safety net as much, when we fully take-in how resourceful we humans really are in this physical realm, as well as how much materia we civilized people manage and will dependably retain. It is an awful illusion to imagine that we are for whatever reasons not up the task, that we don’t have enough of what is most needed, and what we do have is about to be taken away.
And most of all, I wish for you to know how unhelpful it is to imagine that what we are, have, love and live on is anything but real and significant, worthy of our best efforts to embody, actualize and protect. It would not be right to disavow love, just because one is in danger of losing it. It is equally foolish and debilitating to devalue or trivialize the physical and material, life or even our homes and base belongings just because these things may be mortal, precarious or under threat. To my student seeking solace in detachment and transcendence, I pointed out all the ways in which his life and times were anything but “terrible” as he had described, and the wondrous ways in which spirit is manifest on and realized through the – admittedly tenuous and subject to change – physical plane.
My predicted economic upturn may be a while in coming, but that doesn’t mean there is any less reason for hope. The key to getting past our unease isn’t the likelihood that prosperous times will come again, or even that we and our government will figure out all the right tricks… though we may well. It’s coming to sense in the very foundations of our being the irrefutable ways that we are prosperous right now in the middle of the worst downturn in decades, rich in who we are and what we need most to go on, prosperous not just in the ways of spirit but in the well measured material reality of our earthen lives.
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