in Personal Reflections

Income Ethics: Embracing the Human Family

Photo: Searching through the Trash

This essay is the first in a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics (this essay), explains why we need to define our enough, discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work. If you’d like to follow my work, please subscribe or check back here for updates.

A few days after returning to the United States from my first trip to India, I found myself in a movie theater, leaning back into a comfortable chair and quietly feeling the tears roll down my face as I looked around the dimly lit room and watched people stuff their faces with popcorn and slurp on giant cups of soda. I couldn’t help but think about the millions of starving children on the other side of the planet who, while I was enjoying comfort, would be going to sleep later that night hungry and cold on a concrete sidewalk.

A few months later I was invited to attend the last launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery. As I watched the spaceship blast off into outer space, I was again flooded with emotions as I realized how in such a short period of time I had observed the poorest of humans barely surviving in the slums of India to seeing firsthand evidence of the incredible technological advances our species had achieved.

Almost a year after my return, the bulk of these emotions seemed to have all but disappeared, numbed away by the time spent living again in a privileged and abundant society. But, as I walked down a beautiful pathway in California one sunny day, surrounded by perfectly landscaped gardens that wrapped me in pink, yellow, and blue flowers, their petals lazily swaying in the wind, I caught myself once again choking up.

What did I do to deserve so much beauty? Why did I have so much while millions of others lived in heaps of trash, scrounging around in the filth in search of food? And what right did I have to ask for more, to seek an income and ask others to give me more when I already had so much?

Whenever I thought about how I could earn an income through my creative work, I felt embarrassed to even be considering it. While billions were trying to feed themselves, I bathed in the luxury and the privilege of being able to create income streams with virtually no limit on growth and no need for accountability. It felt irresponsible, selfish, and wrong.

I have not always felt this repulsion to asking for more or this difficulty justifying an income. For most of my life I lived with more than I needed. I worked towards goals that were not really my own and I spent the majority of my time doing things to afford stuff that I thought I wanted but didn’t need.

When it came to my career, nothing I did ever felt purposeful to the bigger picture. My potential always felt grossly underutilized and I never felt satisfied. But instead of doing something about it, I unconsciously contributed to the continuation of this dissatisfaction by telling myself that I needed to stick with whatever I was doing, no matter how rote or routine, because the next great opportunity might be just around the corner.

Instead of living life guided by my heart, I was living life guided by the fear of missing out on the next big thing, the thing that everybody had convinced me I would be foolish to throw away. Time was a cheap accessory and I was always willing to sacrifice today in return for the security of knowing that tomorrow would bring something I could expect, something that was already known and easily handled.

It didn’t matter that I was quietly suffering inside. I willingly accepted suffering in my career and in my life because everybody else was suffering too, and sharing that suffering felt easier and more logical than standing out as the person who gave up everything in search of a better way.

But all of that changed last year when I made the decision to rid my life of all that fear and all those external expectations. I voluntarily gave up my attachment to the achievements, the accomplishments, and all the positions and career advancements. Saving myself from the decay of the status quo became more important than all the golden opportunities I might miss in the process.

From that moment forward, I committed myself to living a simple, more purpose-driven lifestyle and proceeded to wipe the slate clean of all my material possessions so that I could discover my enough and allow my heart the freedom it needed to guide my life.

I began living with only what fit on my back and in the process I discovered that letting go actually decreased the sense of scarcity and fear of not having enough.

Instead of being scared to miss opportunities, I began to feel a sense of abundance, a sense of absolute contentedness that came with the knowledge that I had recognized my enough and that I had the freedom to focus on the soul-empowering creative work that I now fully recognized enriched both my life and the lives of others.

But with this freedom came something very unexpected: An unbelievably strong sense of responsibility for using my time and my resources to help rebalance the global inequalities that were brought to my attention by travels abroad.

The decision to travel the world had opened my soul to a feeling of being inexplicably connected to everyone else on the planet. Earth had become my home and everyone on it genuinely felt like family. It became clear that whatever lifestyle I led and whatever work I did, my existence needed to contribute in some way to the well-being of all. I now felt an inherent planetary social responsibility.

Read the next part of the series: Income Ethics: Planetary Social Responsibility

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29 Comments

  1. Love this essay and am really looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Its very serendipitous that your writing this has come at a time when I am really seriously considering my own ‘enough’ and income ethics!

  2. Another fantastic post, Raam :-)
    This is what I just wrote about in my blog yesterday. It seems like I am kind of heading down a similar path and I am certainly looking forward to the outcome….
    Happy writing :/)

    • Thank you, Colleen! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on minimalism and I’m so happy that you’re heading down a similar path. I don’t think there’s a single path to get us to wherever all of this leads, but together we can share the journey and arrive somewhere more conscious and aware than we are now. :)

  3. Income ethics is certainly the most touchy subject to engage. People don’t like it when their finances are in question, much less challenged. I honor you for following your heart and learning what little you’re content living on. I’m curious in what ways you feel you’re able to contribute as you mentioned. I ask because I just recently left my big-kid/secure/benefits position for my other part-time/no-security/no-benefits job that I feel I was created to do. It was a truly difficult transition to make as I feared the loss of security, and this comes from a person that was already near the bottom of the totem-poll in terms of income, but still, I had enough. Now we are more on the side of not-enough but hoping that all will be well. So far so good. But goodness are those feedback loops to live into a life of more and more quite strong. I don’t, at my core, believe in that message, but still… greater society has impacted me so and it takes enormous effort to reveal your true self sometimes. I’m on the other side of the decision, and already reaping benefits and still my superficial anxieties are present, but lessening. I recently wrote on this transition over at ODP. It’s something I’m glad I did sooner rather than later, I can only imagine it gets harder to get out the higher you build the life around you. Oh, but back to my initial question. I’m curious how you feel you’re able to financially contribute to those around you with less as I struggle to do this with the same vigor now that our income has been halved. So in a way, I feel selfish. I chose less work for myself, more time for my family and friends and even just to get sick if I need, and now have less to give. And by less, I mean seemingly none. And yet, I say that sitting here in a house full of stuff, surely I have something to give. I could do with even less, but eventually I will run out of things to sell or whatever the case may be. So that is the end of a not so full though. Curious where you’re at with this. Thanks for writing on this, Raam.

    • Kristy,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and journey here and for your question about how we can contribute with less. This is very much a journey that I am only now beginning and part of what held me back from publishing this series was a feeling of not being ready to share. Who was I to talk about these things without any experience?

      But when I realized that this journey isn’t one that can be taken solo… we must take it together, allowing the various lifestyles, circumstances, and dreams of a wide group contribute to the discussion and work out what it means to have income ethics. So, I’m publishing this series to share my thoughts and explain the framework that I will be using for my own income (that will be in the last essay).

      Being that the focus of my work is creative (i.e., writing), my income ethics and the way in which I ‘give back’ will certainly differ from someone who perhaps works with individuals on a one-on-one basis, or someone who works in the construction business. For each person, the answer will be slightly different. By publishing this series, I hope to get everyone thinking about this topic so that we can find commonalities and discover what pieces are universal.

      You mention feeling somewhat selfish for having extra time and you also talk about your struggle to contribute now that your income has been halved, but think about it this way: How much is your time worth? If you put a dollar amount on it, how much would that be? If you used that time to do things that helped people — perhaps volunteered or spent time brainstorming or working on a new project that could help people — then you’d actually be doing far more to contribute than you would being caged in a job where someone else directs your time.

      Whenever I’m sitting in a cafe working from my laptop, I think about a post I wrote called Voting for Poverty. Initially, I feel selfish but that quickly turns into an awareness of the opportunity I have and how feeling selfish is actually wasting that opportunity.

      As I spend time writing this reply to your comment, I ask myself, “Am I wasting time?”. But the answer is clear: Absolutely not. The energy I put into this reply will reverberate forward through time into the universe. Others will see this reply and it will shift their universe in a tiny way.

      Any energy (i.e. time or money) spent with good intentions propels that good energy forward and lives on forever. Focus on using your energy for good intentions and remember that the material world is only half the equation: When you get rid of physical stuff, replace that empty space with an abundance of goodness and love. None of us live forever, so what better way to occupy our time than to use it for perpetuating goodness?

      • Thank you for replying, Raam. As a blogger who replies to comments, I always really appreciate the same! You’re right, I need to begin to think of my time as opportunity to contribute to others, to my community and to the world around me. I’ll be looking for more intentional ways to do so, or at least to begin to consider some of my current actions as already doing so. Peace, brother.

  4. Wonderful post Raam,

    This is something I’ve really been struggling with as well and I’m very curious to see the rest of your insights.

    Looking through your archives, the change that you’ve made in your life and your website’s tone is magnificent. Keep up the great work and I look forward to getting to know you better.

    Lee

  5. Sobering article. Congratulations!

    I have a question. How does one balance the quest for achieving more so that they can contribute in alleviating the suffering of others and still maintaining the kind of perspective you mention in the article.

    • Hi Zack,

      I’m on this journey too and I don’t have a clear answer to your question. But I wonder, should we be trying to achieve more? Or should we be accepting that we are already abundantly enough? I propose that we recognize our enough and learn to live within it.

      The best way to alleviate the suffering of others is to remove the suffering within ourselves. If we remove our own suffering, then we’re able to live and share fully. We’re able to become shining examples for others to follow and in turn we affect the world around us more than we could know.

      The perspective I mentioned is really nothing more than an understanding that we’re all interconnected. To maintain that perspective, we need to learn to be present, to be fully aware of ourselves in this moment. When I look at a tree, plant, or bird, I allow myself to feel connected to those things. When I see a stranger, I recognize how their soul and my soul are actually one in the same.

      I’m not saying it’s easy to maintain that perspective — it’s a daily, moment to moment challenge. But the first step is to accept that challenge and learn to be mindful.

  6. Dear Raam,

    Starting life as one of those people you would have been crying about, begging, pot bellied with twiglet legs on a dusty street, I can tell you that, (whilst I don’t represent every poor person!) however you choose to help would be welcome.

    The people ‘on the other side of the world’ do not care whether you earn your money in a claustrophobic cubicle or from deeply profound, conscious work. We didn’t care whether you are bathed in all the material riches of the world. Good luck to you! ‘The poor will always be with us,’ Jesus said. Which means that the rich will always be with us too.

    The poorest of the poor don’t have that western mindset that envies others riches – or at least none I have met. They just need to eat that day. Period. That is the focus.

    We did not care if someone chose to strip themselves empathetically of all their material things or loll about in a mansion with gold plated taps. It is not relevant to the dirt, dirt poor, although it might make a difference to that person.

    Just help if you can. Help where you can. That’s it.

    I’m glad you sorted how to handle the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and western wealth in your head. But really, don’t cry. You’ll notice that the majority of the poorest in the world often don’t cry. They are stoic. My mother didn’t. Don’t cry. Just do what you can when you can.The way that best suits you, just as you are doing now.
    Everyone has their own style in contributing to the world. And my existence today from near fatal starvation is proof that the teeniest help that we might receive each day, from a kind word to a silver coin, to discarded cabbage leaves in the market, all added up and made the world of difference.

    Guilt doesn’t cook a pot of rice. :)

    Much blessings on you and folks like you who give a damn and I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

    • Hello Pea,

      Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your story here and for adding to this discussion. Your perspective means more to me than I can say.

      I understand and agree that people ‘on the other side of the world’ don’t care where I work or what material possessions I give up or what expensive riches I choose to buy. And why should they when they’re only concerned with feeding themselves for that day?

      But if the cycle of poverty and inequality is to be broken, the only people capable of doing anything about it are the people who aren’t worried about where their next meal will come from or where they will sleep that night.

      The gift that privileged societies possess is the gift of time and choice, the gift of being able to think beyond “how will I find food for tonight?” or “where will I sleep tonight?” But what are those societies doing with that gift? Are they working towards solving problems that need to be addressed (i.e., world hunger, poverty, inequality, problems with water, etc.)? Or are they selfishly (and in my opinion, immorally) throwing that gift away?

      The poor can’t help, that’s a given. But the wealthy? They can help. The poor don’t care what the wealthy are doing because they can’t care. But the wealthy? Their freedom gives them the human responsibility to care.

      The tears I’ve shed have not been tears of guilt or sadness, but of happiness and gratefulness. The few times when I felt guilty, it was only for a few moments. It quickly turned into feelings of gratefulness and responsibility. Feeling guilty isn’t going to solve anything, but feeling grateful and responsible pushes me to ask how I can do more to help.

  7. I am struggling with the same issues. Now that I am spending more time back in my home city of Calgary, I find it shocking how much affluence and waste there is.

    Living abroad with a very minimalist travel lifestyle has given me the perspective to see that the ‘normal’ life back home isn’t so normal.

    Now my wife and I can comfortably live on a fraction of what others do in this city. No apartment (staying with family), no car and very little non-essential purchases, mean we can live for about $1000 per month in one of the most expensive cities in Canada.

    Now a lot of our time is spent volunteering because we are still looking to find more meaning and purpose in our lives. A big house in the suburbs with SUVs in the driveway is just not a very fulfilling life objective.

    • John, that last bit, “a big house in the suburbs with SUVs in the driveway”, really speaks to priorities. When I think about a big house and SUVs, I think about how much of my time would be ripped away for maintenance and paying bills.

      That’s why I feel it’s about priorities. Imagine for a moment that the citizens of a wealthy country like the United States changed their priorities to focus on fixing global issues like inequality and world hunger. How would people choose to change their lifestyles? (I certainly don’t think that’s a realistic or even plausible solution, as change happens much slower… I just used it as an example.)

      Instead of thinking how our lives affect the long-term, we have very short-sighted and selfish priorities that practically maximize our waste and ensure that inequality and resource distribution remains imbalanced for the maximim amount of time.

  8. hi Raam-
    stunning photograph..are you the artist?
    I have had “reverse culture” shock many times. It is impossible for me to fully integrate back into the material world after having experienced so much soul, spirituality, and Life. I, too, am beyond grateful for the first world luxuries I am able to experience (eating on a regular basis*! as well as having the freedom to choose). But I know, as you do, that it is my responsibility to bring Peace, Compassion, and Love to the world and my community, and no amount of paper $ will ever convince me otherwise.

    • Thank you, Kara! Yes, the photo is mine and I modified it a bit in Photoshop (the original is here). :)

      I’m grateful to hear that you’ve experienced a similar awakening to the awareness of how luxurious we live and I’m so happy to hear that you feel the same responsibility to compassion as I do. Thank you for being you!

  9. Raam,

    Thanks for having the guts to tackle this topic. As someone else mentioned, this is a touchy subject and people don’t like their income choices to be questioned. In fact, I think many people in the developed world don’t even like the word “ethics” because people want to do their own thing.

    But once you start seeing and feeling our interconnectedness to the world, this sense of “planetary social responsibility” or, as the Dalai Lama calls it “universal responsibility” arises. This can transform one’s life in the most beautiful and meaningful way.

    At the same time, I really hear Pea’s plea to be simple about helping and her encouragement to let go of guilty. She has really shared a perspective that many of us can only imagine. Her words also resonate for me.

    I look forward to reading this entire series.

    • Sandra,

      You make an interesting point about how many people in the developed world probably don’t like the word “ethics”. I wonder if that has anything to do with an underlying, perhaps even subconscious awareness, of selfishness. If we’re knowingly being selfish, then even thinking about ethics brings that selfishness to the surface and risks our egos being exposed.

      I also agree with Pea’s plea for simplicity. I don’t believe the solution is at all complex or grand. It’s very individual. I also think there may have been a misunderstanding about guilt: I don’t feel guilty. The tears I have shed were not tears arising from sadness or guilt, but rather from gratefulness and happiness. We shouldn’t feel guilty; we should feel a responsibility to help.

      I look forward to sharing the rest of this series with you and I hope to hear more of your thoughts on this subject. :)

  10. Ive had these thoughts many times myself and have not been able to reconcile them other than I align my self with God’s will every day. That never includes getting more for myself, it always involves sheading the light on the path of those around me. Being part of the solution, what ever the solution is, not the problem.

    • Rosalind, I have no doubt that the ‘solution’ will be found in selflessness, so I feel we need to remind ourselves every day that true joy and happiness can be found in giving, not taking or hoarding. :)

  11. Agree with most points. Somewhere you seem to be communicating that ‘competence is important & not competition’. I fail to understand a thing, If a decision to let go external expectation is taken by me, would’nt the society (not just few people around us, but every person old & young) would run over me as they do not see me to be a so called successful person in life, ontop what about that lot of people who are much used to survive on others loss, would I not become a target of that brotherhood.

    • Hello Sri, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. :)

      Remember that you only become a target if you allow yourself to become a target. If you understand the tactics of the people who prey on those who survive on the loss of others, then you can avoid them altogether.

      Nobody can ‘run over’ you unless you allow them to. Many societies are set up with a specific definition and view for ‘success’, but what if you create your own definition for success? What can they do then?

      What can they do if you choose to be happy without subscribing to their view of the world? They can’t do anything except learn from you. And that’s how we can set an example for others (which differs from, and is much more effective than, preaching).

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with competition. It’s only when we compromise our values in the name of competition and choose to value ‘winning’ over human life and human solidarity that we get into trouble.

      Does that make sense?

  12. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this important topic!
    I don’t think you are questioning the fact that income is “necessary”: I think you are asking us to be congizant and aware of how we choose to earn an income and how much is sufficient for our circumstances, then how much we can share from that sufficiency. And I think you are aware that all of our individual circumstances vary from each other and differ greatly from yours, so our choices might be heart based, yet not as drastic as yours have been. I see how you live from a small backpack, and I think of how much “material stuff” I have even in my little boat that I live in..how my income barely covers my two young children and yet is somehow more than enough to share generously to help others in need. It is this ability to share that allows me to consider how much less I could live with so that I could share more.
    I tend to think in terms of local community, so your perspective has expanded my own to include global community. I think the first step is awareness, followed by action..we can make a difference with what we have now, in this moment..time, energy, resources, voice.
    Thank you for this: “The best way to alleviate the suffering of others is to remove the suffering within ourselves.” I know that for me to share life enriching and enlivening, all within shall be as life enriching and enlivening as possible..
    I look forward to reading the rest of your series..as well as the conversations that follow..

    • Joy, thank you for sharing your thoughts. :)

      You’re absolutely correct in that I’m not questioning the fact that ‘income’ is necessary and that I’m simply saying we need to be cognizant and aware of what earning an income means (and what we do with that income). The next part of this series speaks a lot to this.

      Also, you’re correct in that I’m very much aware that each of our circumstances differ and therefore our choices will vary as well. All I ask is that we make choices and decisions about our work and our lifestyle with the planetary community in mind. We need to think beyond ourselves, more long-term. Even if we’re not traveling the world and living out of a backpack, our actions and the choices we make still affect everybody else on the planet.

  13. Great post, Raam. I will be traveling to India myself in a few months, and I’m interested to see how it changes me.

    Right now I’m working on building up my own online business, and while I know I need much less money than most people in the Western world think is required for an individual to be happy, I’m not opposed to earning vast sums for the work I do. I see money as a tool to help people; the more I have, the more I can direct to causes I deem worthy.

    When I think of someone like Maggie Doyne, the young American woman who built a school in Nepal and continues to save the lives of dozens of children there each year… her work is aided by hefty donations from folks back home. Without those funds, she couldn’t make such a big difference.

    I write this in response to your comment about feeling embarrassed to be receiving an income for your creative work. I think there are few people in the world who can do as much good with that income as you, so no need to feel embarrassed about it.

    • Niall,

      I’m in full agreement with everything you said. I have nothing against large incomes. All I ask is that we are responsible with that income and that we live within our means.

      Maggie is an incredible example and someone that I have huge respect for. And you’re right: Without the help of wealthy donors, there’s a lot of work she might not be able to do. However, that’s exactly what I’m trying to point out: Even if we can’t (or don’t want to) travel to Nepal to set up schools, there are ways for us to help.

      When I mentioned feeling embarrassed about receiving an income, I was writing in retrospect: I no longer feel that way. In fact, it was the resolution of that feeling that inspired me to write this income ethics series and the thoughts and realizations I came to are what I will be sharing here.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I look forward to hearing more about how India affects your journey. :)