In my experience, there’s a common saying among middle-class Americans of my age (35 if you must know).
I think we started saying it in our college years when we were living on student loans or our parents’ mercy, and we have continued to carry it with us as we age. We usually say it in casual conversations like, “I love that restaurant, but I’m too poor to eat out very often.” Or “I’m too poor to afford cable TV.” Or as I recall recently saying about an upcoming trip my extended family is taking, “I’m too poor to go to Disney World.”
Usually we say it flippantly — we realize we’re not that poor. But I think we say it because in the United States, there is always someone richer than you just around the corner. We are so surrounded by great riches that our relative riches seem paltry in comparison. My home, which would look like a mansion if dropped in the middle of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, seems rather modest next to the mansions up the hill from me.
I wonder what effect this casual outer monologue has on our inner monologue. When we tell ourselves, “I’m too poor for that,” does it cause a subtle tightening of our fists? Rather than being open-handed to the (truly) poor, do we begin to feel the need to protect our own interests?
Our definition of poor seems to be any limit on what we are able to do financially. And as we progress through life and gain wealth, the limits become more grandiose. It starts with, “I am too poor to eat out.” Then it’s, “I’m too poor for cable.” Then it’s, “I’m too poor for a new car…a bigger house…private school…my country club dues.” (Yes, I have heard someone say that last one.)
It’s an ever-sliding scale of wealth, which we will never win.
Our tendency, when we get a little more money, is to live up to our means. A slightly larger house or a slightly larger car, and we have the same stress each month when our bills arrive and the same feeling that we’re poor compared to so-and-so up the road.
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What we need in the United States is not more money. We need to twist our brains back into clear thinking. Because what I should really say is not, “I’m too poor to go to Disney World,” but “I’m not quite rich enough to go to Disney World.”
I’m rich. (And I don’t mean spiritually or relationally — which I am — but which is a whole other topic.)
I’m rich financially.
I went back to older posts I had written for this blog to find out if I’d already written on this topic. (I have a tendency to repeat myself.) I found a post I had written, “A Different Perspective,” about a young man from Kenya who stayed with us for a week. Upon seeing our house, he declared us “stinkin’ rich.”
(In case you’re wondering for comparison’s sake, our home is about 1,900 square feet — pretty average — and we paid well below the national average price for it.)
In my surroundings, it’s easy to feel just average. (Or in my particular neighborhood, where homes just up the hill sell for $600,000 and up, a lot below average.)
But compared to 99 percent of the billions of people in the world, I’m rich. Stinkin’ rich.
What would happen if instead of telling myself, I’m “poor,” I started saying, “I’m rich?” What would happen to you?
I’d probably start to feel a lot more content. I’d probably start to be a lot more thankful. And generosity would become the obvious response to my many, many blessings.
Why don’t you give it a try? For the next week, don’t focus on what you don’t have (“I can’t afford my own spaceship like Richard Branson!”), and focus on the riches you do have. Then thank God. And be generous.