I have to confess that I’ve been cheering for the protestors in the Occupy movement. I picture myself as being part of the 99 percent and resent the fact that the average CEO makes 325 times more than workers in his/her company and that the bottom 80 percent of Americans only own 7 percent of the wealth in this country (Prof. G. William Domhoff, Univ. Cal. Santa Cruz).
In a sense, it’s all relative. I heard a story about two friends: One guy had his salary cut from $60,000 to $40,000 and the other was given a raise from $20,000 to $40,000. They ended the year making the same salary, but one felt on top of the world and the other was angry and depressed.
When I hear about the Occupy protests, I get transported back emotionally to the 1960s when I joined in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and participated in actions against racial segregation and prejudice. Righteous anger has a way of energizing people and making them feel more alive.
So imagine how righteously angry I can feel when I realize I’m not just in the 99 percent or the lower 80 percent but that my total wealth lands me in the bottom half. Even my friends think of me as being poor. I haven’t paid for dinner out in months. They always insist on picking up the bill. And that means I can feel righteous anger and self-pity at the same time.
But that delicious emotional mixture never lasts because almost every year I help lead a mission trip to Thailand, during which my attitude always gets adjusted. Thailand is by no means one of the poorest countries in the world, but when I’m there, I suddenly morph from the oppressed 99 percent to the top 20 percent. Talk about culture shock! I step off the plane in Bangkok and I go from a guy just scraping by to someone who can afford to eat out every night.
There I have to deal with a whole new set of emotions like embarrassment, shame and guilt. And what intensifies those emotions is the generosity and good humor of the Thai people I meet every day.
One conclusion I draw from all of this is that poverty and wealth are relative to where I am living. That’s true enough as far as it goes, but I think it’s also a matter of attitude. I have met chauffeurs who are happier than the rich folk they drive around. Going to Thailand gives me a radical change in my perspective and an attitude adjustment.
Whether you’re rich or poor can be measured in dollars and cents. But in another way, they’re really states of mind. Like it or not, when it comes to most of the rest of the world, we – all of us – are part of the 1 percent. From that perspective, maybe a small dose of self-reflective guilt is OK if it motivates us to behave as responsible global citizens.
And when it comes to the income disparities in our own country, a little bit of righteous anger is good if it motivates us to shake off our apathy and cynicism and get involved. But we have to take care that the anger we feel doesn’t blind us to the reality that getting even with the wealthy, so to speak, won’t automatically give us the generous spirit we long to feel.
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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.