in Personal Reflections

Voting for Poverty

Look into her eyes. Look at the expression her mouth makes, the red marks left by tears on her cheeks, the grit underneath her nails. Now tell me that cup of coffee I was drinking is somehow more important.

Every time you buy something you don’t need or spend time in the pursuit of a selfish goal, you’re placing a vote that says you’d rather see people suffer than sacrifice your own wants and desires.

You can push the starving children out of your head and tell yourself that you’d do more if you could. You can remind yourself that you’re a good person and that you have your own problems to deal with.

But none of that changes the fact that there are 2 billion people living on the same planet as you, sharing the same resources, breathing the same air, and yet surviving on a standard of living far below what you would consider humane.

None of that changes the fact that there are 17,000 children dying every single day from preventable causes.

There are no subtle exceptions. The coffee I’m drinking right now is a vote for poverty because I wasted $2 to satisfy my craving for caffeine instead of using that money to feed a hungry family for an entire week.

I selfishly voted for my own pleasure over the nourishment of an entire family.

Is that moral?

I am not that important. You are not that important. Nobody is worth more than a human life. Circumstances don’t exclude some of us from shouldering this responsibility. It’s our problem and humanity owes it to itself to take care of its own.

Five months ago I returned from India and found myself homesick in a strange and privileged land. The weeks moved on and I began working at my old job to save money for my next trip. I found myself settling back into the life I left six months earlier and slowly things seemed to return to normal.

Except one thing. I couldn’t get that number out of my head: 17,000. I couldn’t stop thinking about all those people I saw on my journey who were living with nothing.

I couldn’t stop questioning the moral implications of the apparent addiction to waste that now surrounded me. Food thrown in the trash. Money thrown around as if there was nothing better to do with it. Hours, days, and months of time and life wasted on entertainment.

I’ve been trying really hard to understand, to find some way to justify the lifestyle my friends and family have always lived. I’ve been trying really hard to find some way to justify my lifestyle over the past five months, the comforts I still afford, the soft couch, the tall ceilings and the big windows.

I’ve been trying really hard to find some way to justify buying a cup of coffee when children are dying of starvation.

But it’s all to no avail. Every day I’m left feeling more and more frustrated. More restless and more annoyed with my own inability to make choices that feel moral and sustainable on a planetary scale.

Instead I’m left gritting my teeth and holding back tears when I look at pictures of children begging, holding out their hand and asking for just a little bit of compassion. Asking for a little bit of caring and consideration. Asking to be remembered in our thoughts when we spend our time and money on things we don’t really need.

I don’t know how to live a dramatically different lifestyle. But I’m learning. I don’t know how to live a life where all my actions are selfless. But I’m making an effort. I don’t know how we can reach a future where every human being on the planet is afforded a basic standard of living. But I know it’s possible.

I know it’s possible because that’s the only thing that makes sense.

We should simplify our lives, reduce our possessions, and eliminate unnecessary waste, yes, but why should we stop there? If we simplify our lives and get rid of clutter but then turn around and hoard an excess of free time and underutilized potential, what have we really simplified? What have we really given away?

The goal should be freedom to serve and use our time to improve equality on this planet. The goal should be freedom to give; freedom to share; freedom to help, to love, and to care. Ultimate happiness is not gained by hoarding it, but rather by giving it away to those who need it.

Am I alone in feeling this way? Do we not have a planetary social responsibility to sacrifice a large portion of our pleasure, our comfort, and our time in exchange for working towards equality for all? What makes us so special?

[photo credit: Evstafiev]

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  1. Raam,

    This is so powerful. No, you are not alone in feeling this way by any means. But like you, I see how easy it is to let the interconnections slip from my mind and instead focus on my own self-centered interests. I’m grateful for articles like this that remind me to wake up.

    The recent post I wrote on minimalism vs. moderation has had me thinking quote a lot too. People have no idea that many of us in developed countries are consuming 5 earths worth of resources. We are running out of resources. We are not sharing. Children are dying everyday. We are often so oblivious.

    All these extra “pleasures” we would give up are only momentary anyway. They don’t bring true happiness.

    I’m making an effort too. And I know it’s possible too. Thank you as always from the center of my heart.

    • Thank you, Sandra.

      I really enjoyed your post on Minimalism vs Moderation, especially the amazing discussion going on in the comments! It’s so uplifting to hear from others with a strong a sense of awareness.

      What disturbs me the most is that if you ask the average person, myself included, if we’re all consuming too much, the general consensus will be a resounding yes. And yet what are we all doing about it? I know many of us are simplifying our lives, but can we be doing more? As someone who got rid of nearly all his possessions and has decided to live a nomadic lifestyle, I find myself looking for a way to give back the intangible.

      In the big picture, we’re here for a tiny fraction of time. Billions have come before us and billions will come after us. What we do here now determines how they — and we, if you’re a believer in reincarnation — will live on this planet in the future. I think it takes a strong awareness that our lives can, and do, mean more than pleasure, excitement, and the pursuit of “more”.

  2. You are not alone. I don’t wallow in guilt when I trravel to the rural parts of Distrito Federal, but I feel pain and sorrow. I stopped (A), trying to ignore it, and (B), feeling like the pain and sorrow is a bad thing.

    Constant guilt can be binding–but the way you challenge yourself (a bit like Hamlet), will make you a wide soul and deep well of healing for many.

    Perhaps several of those 17000!

    • Hi Mark,

      I second your remark about how guilt can be a binding thing. I too have stopped trying to ignore the pain that I feel and instead choose to see it as a good thing — a reminder that something needs to be done that sacrifice of some form will be required to find balance.

      I’ve had that photo at the top of this post as my wallpaper for the past few weeks. Every time I need a reminder, I simply hide all the windows on my Mac and stare into her eyes for a few moments. Every single time, it fills me with a sense of empathy and no matter what problem I’m facing it seems to pale in comparison.

      We need reminders like that. We need to put the problem it in front of us — make the elephant in the room well known to us. That’s one thing that’s so powerful about traveling to a developing country: we have no choice but to face reality and ask ourselves, “why?”

  3. No, you are not alone Raam, but the problem is that we are so enmeshed in our own cultural standards. We have to pay the rent, or mortgage. We have to pay school fees. We have live within a certain standard. Al least, that’s what our society demands!
    But I agree with you. We need a shift in thinking that says, I can live in a much smaller house. I don’t have to buy new clothes. Maybe I could swap some clothes that I have for some of my friends’ clothes. That way we could all perhaps find money to give.
    There again, if we were to stop buying coffe, or lunches, or whatever else, might we have a new wave of pverty here? The problem is comples, but we must never feel that we cannot, in some small way, bx part of the solution.

    • Hi Maria,

      I think it’s all about living with “enough”. There comes a point where our basic necessities are met and we don’t need to keep filling our lives with stuff or buying things just for the sake of buying them. We should use our lives as a signpost that states what we believe is enough and then encourage those around us to do the same.

      This year I’m focusing a lot on my own financial independence, so that I can continue this important work without spending my time doing “busy work” just to pay the bills. I’m beginning to see that what we need is a change in the way business operates, too. When I buy my food, I want to know that a huge portion of that is going back into not just the local community, but also the planetary community. When I ride the subway, pay my phone bill, or buy a cup of coffee, I want to know that a portion of that money is going somewhere that it’s genuinely needed.

      Business shouldn’t be a means to an end, but rather a means to improve equality and quality of living for all.

  4. Jesus said that the poor would be among us “always.” Does that get us off the hook regarding responsibility towards them? No. He also said, “I was naked and you did not clothe me, hungry and you did not feed me…” Wide-eyed, the people asked, “Lord, when were you naked and we did not clothe you, hungry and we did not feed you…” He replied, “when you failed to do it to the least of these, you failed to do it to me.” How many folks in the USA go shopping on the weekends – for sport? Does one “need” another pair of shoes? How many can you wear at once? What about jeans? I can wear one pair for three weeks or more until my wife tells me to put them in the laundry. Why do I need another pair? Certainly there is great need in the world. I have never traveled to a poor country. Raam has. I was once told by a fellow who was in government service and traveled extensively due to his work, that everyone should travel to a third world country and see the people – see where they live – what they eat, when they eat. Yes, there is great need. Alas, in our own backyards here in America there are the hungry, poor, the homeless. And we DO vote with our wallets over here. When I was first married, my wife was pregnant and stayed at home before and after the birth. I was the only income. Like most, we had bills to pay, and believe me, babies are not a cheap entity in a household. Know what I learned? A valuable lesson: there is a difference in what we “need” and what we “want.” As Raam has indicated often, we can live the minimalist lifestyle now; where we are. We only “need” food, water and shelter. All else is bonus. If we live minimally, what do we do with excess money that we don’t spend? Money that we save, so to speak, by not being a sport shopper, or by buying our next outfit of clothes from a Thrift Store? Or the gas money we save by taking a bike or walking? We can donate it to a local shelter for abused women, the homeless or food bank. We can make a donation to an international relief agency (do your homework and pick one that spends the most of your dollar for direct aid to the needy, and not on administration, etc.). Perhaps best of all, we can donate our time, our love, our compassion, our hands and feet. We can be a difference. We can vote for right.

    • Ricky, thank you for such a valuable contribution to this discussion.

      You make so many important observations, but the one that stood out most to me was what you said about discovering the difference between “want” and “need”, as you were forced to do after having a child.

      Our idea of necessity is largely skewed by the standard of living we grew up with. I have friends like Farnoosh Brock who grew up in the Middle East with far less than she has living now in the United States. Her childhood perspective allows her to easily compare everything around her to what she previously experienced. Those of us who grew up in a middle class family in a developed country (like myself in the United States), we have no baseline “bare necessity” perspective to use. And that’s the perspective I gained when I went to India last year. That’s the perspective I now compare everything to.

      The whole financial crisis in the West over the past few years has been forcing people to see that more realistic perspective, to gain a new understanding of what’s really necessary. And as a result, more and more people are getting rid of stuff (as the resurgence of minimalism is proving) and doing more of what they’ve always wanted to do, like traveling (the travel industry has been booming even amidst the recession).

    • Thanks for clarifying a misconception about Christ’s teaching. I have long recoiled at misuses of religion. TRUE religion, as Raam implicity describes involves “taking care of the orphaned, widowed, and poor.”

      Everything else is easily left awash in doctrine and “have-tos.” I know I’m called to empathy (em = enter; pathos = soul/feeling)–to really experience the suffering of another…this is 1000 light-years from pity, even sympathy.

  5. We join the refrain, Raam, in saying that, no, you are not alone. Thankfully! We are grappling with what it means to be responsible; to keep the human element intact in this increasingly tech and selfish desires/consumerist driven society. We know it must be possible and we are moved to for so many reasons: We had many remarkable experiences I know you would appreciate while on a trip in Kenya; these stand out: our offer to give change for food to children near the Kibera slums rebuffed by locals as they knew the children would use the funds for glue to sniff to stave off their hunger-our hearts literally breaking we lined up a group and purchased bread and treats to physically give them watching to make certain it was ingested (so they couldn’t trade food for glue either) a humbling and eye opening experience. Another: we went into Masai Mara, our arrival for a large scale outreach advertised on slips of newsprint (pics of us included) that unknown to us had been collected and hoarded for days as paper is such a precious commodity. Jeff & I approached by very young children barely able to speak any English saying “I see you, I see you!”, crumpled paper held out (our first discovery that our pictures are on paper) then with upturned face the child asks ‘See Me?’ Words cannot convey the impact of those 2 words. They, in their abject poverty, dung huts and nomadic existence just wanted to know they had been seen, noticed, touched. We touched their head in the cultural way of an ‘elder’ blessing; children are definitely raised to respect other’s authority there; we walked on more touched than they. We came away from that trip with a firm understanding: we cannot change every one, but we can make a difference to many. And so we try, we plot, we dream, we do. Sorry to have written what must be the longest comment ever, if you need to delete, I will certainly understand. But it must be said, we have a difference to make in this world, if we daily choose to do so. Thank you for being so real, so sincere in your desire to be one that does, it is noted, for that alone, you are special.

    • Gena, that was one of the most moving comments I’ve ever received on my blog.

      Those two words — “See me?” — are so incredibly powerful. We all want to be heard, to know that we matter and that we mean something. Even we in developed countries are not immune to that desire to belong. But those who genuinely need help for their very survival — those who are at risk of death if they are ignored — they show us the true purpose of those feelings.

      You also pointed out a big problem: The misuse of help as a result of scarcity. When people know it might just be a one-off thing, they get desperate (or in the case of those children, sniff glue because it provides a longer-term solution to avoiding hunger). We can’t dip our feet in the water and hope to wash the world. We need to go all in, fully submerge ourselves and commit our lives to making better choices and to continuously looking for new ways that we can help.

        • Hi Jill,

          I think we need more experiences like these to help remind us how connected we all are. I was also holding back tears reading Gena’s story. If one story, conveyed through a computer screen, can have such a strong impact on us, imagine the impact of actually being there.

          • So true… reading about something can sometimes cause a “momentary” inspiration / heart connection, but being IN an experience creates a life time stamp on the soul. I went to India once for two week in Kerala (southern tip), where not “much” poverty was seen. There was an “option” for a 2 week add-on to Northern India where “more poverty and dead people on streets” would be seen. I chose to not do the add-on as I was afraid of the emotional impact it would have on me. Perhaps this is what my soul needs though…

            • I think it would be beneficial for everyone to see how a majority of the people in the world actually life, day to day. Would it be traumatic? Perhaps a little, yes, but I think that’s the point.

              We’ve been conditioned to the point where we think everything comes wrapped in a plastic box and all our food is magically purified. The bubble we’ve created around ourselves is unhealthy and as a result we lose touch with reality and with the responsibility we all have to use our great potential for good.

  6. I think sometimes that we feel overwhelmed by how huge the problem is, and that our little efforts don’t amount to much. But I don’t agree with this- I think that even if we were only able to help one person – then we have made a difference in that person’s life.

    I think that the key to increasing our concern for others is to increase our exposure to hurting people.

    We live in a culture that worships comfort and so we strive to reach a point where there is no strain- to a point of “living comfortably”.

    I feel ashamed that I do not do more.

    • You’re right, David. Helping even just one person makes a difference. I think what’s most important is that we help and give selflessly, without expectation of something in return. By doing that, the energy we send out continues traveling through time. Energy we send out with a string attached ends up being choked off and suffocated.

      I think we need to define a universal standard for “living comfortably”. It changes so much right now, from person to person. I think for some people, it can mean a big house, big car, lots of food, and plentiful money. While for others, “living comfortably” can mean a blanket instead of a straw mat, a solid roof instead of a piece of plastic, a meal once a day instead of twice a week.

      What is “comfortable” and where do we draw the line for “enough”? Those are the questions I’m asking myself every day as I continue my transition.

  7. Hi Raam,

    I agree that we should be more thoughtful about spending and about our environment in general, but I wouldn’t pity poor people like that. Poverty doesn’t necessarily mean lack of happiness. Poverty is just another challenge. Do not feel guilty for being richer than someone, these people have their pride. And I think guilt is not a very good reason for self-improvement.

    Regards,
    Mikhail

    • Hi Mikhail, thank you for the comment.

      I’m not feeling pity or guilt. I’m feeling a sense of responsibility and empathy. I fully agree with you that poor people don’t need our pity and they don’t need us to feel guilty. They need our compassion and our willingness to be selfless. They need us to feel the human connection that already exists between all of us.

      I used the term “poverty” very broadly in this post, as a way to encompass all forms of unnecessary suffering in the world. I don’t see money as the solution, but rather the enabler. Money gives us time and time allows us to serve. The poor don’t need to become rich and the rich don’t need to become poor, but I do believe we need to find a place to meet in the middle where there is basic welfare for all.

  8. I cannot get the photograph of that beautiful girl out of my head. You most certainly are not alone in this struggle towards creating equality for all. It is so easy to get caught up in our every day lives and forget there is a world out there needing our help. I am so thankful for your beautifully written article as a reminder that so many are in need. My true challenge comes in showing my children that there world is not so small and that we are all interconnected.

    Gena’s comment brought tears to my eyes. We can all make a difference-we just have to choose to do so.

    Thank you again for spearheading this discussion.

    • Lori, thank you so much for facing the challenging of showing your children that we’re all interconnected. I truly believe parents are the key to a future where we all understand how our actions affect each other and the planet as a whole.
      Gena’s comment had me holding back tears too and I’m so grateful that all of us can connect like this, sharing stories and validating that what we feel is not only real but shared.

  9. A wide variety of thoughts and emotions come to mind while reading this post and the resulting comments. As far as the first world society goes, I totally agree that as a whole we consume and want way too much and more than our fair share. I’m all for living sustainably and with much less and on a smaller footprint.

    On a person to person basis, I have the desire to share my abundance with another soul who is in need. The frustration comes in on a macro-level. In many cases there are too many people living in places with poor natural resources and under corrupt, incompentant, or overwhelmed governments and institutions. I suppose this falls under the there will be poor always category. Do we just give our time and treasure to our fellow sojourners and not worry about the big picture issues until the Sun eventually sets for one last time?

    • Hi Ed,

      You point out a problem that I’ve struggled with a lot recently: When the problems are so big and so prevalent, when so many people and so many organizations already exist to tackle such problems — what good could I possibly do on a grand scale?

      I think part of the answer lies in our ability to connect and communicate with vast numbers of people using this new communications medium: The Internet. The individual finally has an opportunity to choose a lifestyle that they believe is beneficial for the planet and its inhabitants and to then share that lifestyle with others who have similar goals.

      That sharing creates a web of people who then spread these ideas to more people. It becomes a domino effect of positive change. (It doesn’t happen overnight, but I think our discussing this stuff right here is evidence that this movement not only has a heartbeat, but that it’s currently being born.)

    • Ed you made a good point on the issue of governance. But lets not forget that as the wikileaks keep proving our first world Empire doesn’t have a qualm about making matters worse. So is it the local corrupt or incompetent government or does our glorious Empire have something to do with it? They don’t mind stealing resources for their own pleasure.

      This makes it harder to change the world into one of equality when the very people in charge of it don’t appear to want that equality.

  10. You are absolutely right. We choose to make differences, which is why giving to charity as a line item in my budget is important.

    I feel responsible, but I won’t be browbeaten into feeling guilty for having what I have — to me, that is not the same thing, and I want to give those dollars to charity freely, not out of guilt.

    • Hi Serena!

      I think making contributions to charity a part of our budget is absolutely essential, but I also think that we need to budget some of our time for voluntary activities that will help provide us with a perspective and an understanding that we couldn’t otherwise gain. That second part is certainly a challenge, one that I have yet to tackle myself but that I’m making an effort to do this year.

      I don’t think we need to feel guilty for what we have, but I do think we should be responsible about it. If we have more than we need, I don’t think that’s being responsible.

  11. Wow. This is a beautifully written thought provoking post. I have felt these frustrations quite often but you have put them into words so well. Every time I go home to India from Boston, I gain a new appreciation of everything I have in my life. It also opens my eyes to the plight of others who make do with so little and yet they go on with their life with a silent dignity and strength to fight for survival the next day. In a place like Mumbai, it is incredible how vast the gap between the rich and the poor is. You can either decide to focus on the Mercedes or Maybach racing past on the streets or you could focus on the families that sleep on the foot wide medians on the very same street.
    There is so much work to be done, yet even a single person can make a difference in somebody’s life just by making simple choices. That is the encouraging part of it!

    • Thank you for sharing, Manyu. Like you said, it’s all about choice. We can choose to face the harsh reality and let it sink it, stirring within us a need to do something about it, or we can chose to ignore it, putting ourselves above the problem and pretend there’s nothing we can do about it.

  12. Empathy and consciousness will make many things possible. There are many jobs to be done: feeding the poor, stopping pollution and waste, fighting abuses of human rights.

    First we must enable ourselves to be self-sufficient. From there, we know what to do, locally and globally. Most of us have room for improvement, and reminders like this post are a good thing!

    • I agree, Meg! Self-sufficiency is incredibly important. If we’re not capable of taking care of ourselves, we won’t be in a position to utilize all our potential to help others. I also think that education is incredibly important — the more we understand the world around us, the more confidence we gain to change that world.

      Knowledge is a powerful thing and it’s important not to become smug or stubborn and think that “we know it all”.

  13. Raam – I don’t even know where to begin. What do you say when all the words in the world aren’t enough to convey the connection you feel to an idea, a person, a way of life that makes sense.

    Over the past month, I’ve felt this odd connection to you and your work. We haven’t talked much and yet I feel our lives are heading down similar paths. I feel like you’re up ahead of me in many ways, but in another sense, does time and place really matter in a world when the present moment is exploding with life.

    We need to connect, man. I’ve let too much busyness get in the way of that. Let’s make it happen this week, ok?

    In love and deep respect,
    Mike

    • Thank you, Mike. I think we’re all on this path together and none of us further along than the other. Your set of experiences and where you are in life gives you a unique set of potential, one that I could never have. It’s all about how we use that potential and what direction we choose to walk.

      I felt an intuitive connection to your work as well when you first started Art of Minimalism back in September. I look forward to connecting on Skype!

  14. Hey Raam, Wow! such an amazing post. I agreed with everything you said. I often think about how could I live selfishly while billions of amazing people are on the brink of starvation. I know that most of the ways we can make a difference may seem like a drop in the bucket, but (like they say) “you have to start somewhere”. The community that I’m part of has communities in Argentina and Brazil and they are very poor countries, however, we have helped them not only by sending money, clothes, shoes…but we also buy products that they grow, like mate(a South American green tea) we drink it and sell it. This has made a substantial difference in there lifestyle, and we enjoy the mate tea. Community life is very sustainable and 3rd world friendly, because you can bring community into any country and cause it to flourish from the inside out. We take care of each other and meet each others needs because we love each other and sacrifice what we have so that others can have their needs met. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been part of this life, especially in the realm of selfishness. I know that the needs in the world are over whelming but we can’t let that keep us from doing anything about it. It all starts with one step towards the solution, you just keep going and you never look back. Hey don’t forget…we’re on this journey together. Thanks for your friendship.

    • Hi John,

      Communities are so important and I want to thank you for sharing your experiences here. It seems like we really need more community-oriented solutions but I struggle to find a way that will work when so many people have a desire to travel, explore, and move around (which I think are really good things, if they’re done with the right intentions).

      That’s one reason why I find Internet-based communities, like the one this blog has created, to be an incredible wave of opportunity. So many of us with similar ideas, goals, passions, and visions, are all connecting with each other and exchanging ideas. I’d like to know how we can take this community and do something effective in the real-world.

      Business too, as you mentioned with buying Mate tea from South America, is an incredibly powerful tool in helping improve the living standard in developing countries. I’d really like to find some ways that we can utilize the Internet to create similar change. That’s my primary focus this year: Building a sustainable, Internet-based business that contributes to a social cause.

  15. Raam, I didn’t want to read your post, man. I really didn’t want to finish it once I started. I could feel the guilt soaring through my skin and I wanted to look away. But..I couldn’t…because you speak the truth. How many votes have I made for poverty because of frivolous things I could have used to help.

    Yes, it does seem incomprehensible. Yes, it seems impossible. How do I ensure each of these 17,000 get fed or a warm bed? How do I ensure these children will have shoes on their feet? How do I balance this with my own three children who look to me to provide for their needs.

    And it’s an unexplainable paradox. Of course we can’t each individually save each person. I have been a minister for several years and I believe in mission trips. Like your experience, I find that each time we go feeling like we’re going to change people, they wind up changing us. You have a beautiful mission, my friend. Keep at it!

    (and it really was a pleasure to read!)

    • Thank you, Bryan.

      I feel your struggle with wanting to help on the macro-scale, but feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume (we couldn’t even remember the names of 17,000 children every day if we tried, what to talk of saving them). But, I think together we do make a difference. That number — 17,000 — has dropped dramatically over the past 10 years due to the incredible effort of so many people. There are fewer children dying every day because people who cared did something about it.

      So what can we do? I think we need to start with ourselves by creating the lifestyle we feel is sustainable in the long-run and also indirectly helps everybody else. I find myself asking questions like, “If I fast-forward 100 years into the future, would this choice be looked at as obviously unsustainable? What would replace it as the sustainable choice and why?”.

      That’s one reason why I choose not to eat meat. Sure, people have eaten meat for thousands of years, but they also didn’t have exploding populations, land shortages, climate issues, etc. I look at it from the bigger picture and see vegetarian diets as the inevitable outcome. By starting early, I help contribute to that positive direction.

      The same goes for anything else: I could own a car for convenience, or I could deal with the inconvenience and use public transportation. A hundred years from now when populations are three or four times what they are today, will it be sustainable for everyone to own a car? Nope. So why not make that transition early, especially if I’m already living a lifestyle where a car isn’t a necessity?

      It’s all the small choices we make in how we each live our lives that will determine in which direction, and how quickly, the future of this planet evolves. Once we have taken care of basic necessities and freed up enough time, we should also be looking at how we can serve and help others. But it all starts with us. Right here at home.

  16. Thank you for the entry, Raam.
    It is your writings that made me reexamined thoughts about my life last year and joined a social entrepreneuship conference in Tanzania.

    But this issue brings me more questions than answers.

    Is treating life of every single person as an ultimate absolute a sustainable approach in long-term considering continious increase in population?

    How can we help those young people who don’t want to work and consider their poverty as an enough fact for reach people to support them – thus making unrealistic to bring them out of poverty (because we know that charity does not bring people out of poverty while just promoting their laziness and willingness to be poor and thus cared about)?

    How to help people in those countries where the best way is to make then proactive in life – and while you make many people proactive you make yourself a dangerous person for country authorities? (I live in such a country)

    I hope to walk through this path successfully and see that we need a breakthrough approach to make helping other people sustainable.

    • Hi Pavel,

      Thank you for bringing up some interesting problems! Those are the kinds of questions that really make me think!

      While it’s true we cannot help every single person, I think it’s important to remember that every human life has value. We still need to aim for a world where nobody goes hungry, even if it doesn’t happen for a thousand years, we still need to start aiming for that right now. Is that a sustainable approach? I say yes, absolutely. The population will increase, true, but a greater population doesn’t decrease the value of each human life!

      Regarding your questions about helping people who seem willing to be poor and get free help, I think it’s important to remember that we cannot help those who don’t want to be helped. If people are freeloading and are not interested in working to improve their living standards, then that’s their problem and we shouldn’t encourage such behavior.

      Those who need to become proactive in life will only do so by their own accord. They will do so when they see others becoming proactive and forging a better life for themselves. It won’t happen overnight, but that’s the only way people will change their lives. It all comes back to what Mahatma Gandhi said: “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.” By setting an example, others learn and make their own decision to change.

  17. Very thoughtful Raam. I can see both sides of the issue. Like Powell says there are those who are lazy or in some cases genuinely unable to help themselves. Also what is the benchmark for success? I mean is it to have everyone live like Citizens of our Glorious U. S. Empire or is it more like say a Hopi Indian or somewhere in between?

    Also does self torture actually solve anything? Look at the middle_ages. The people in Europe at the time thought it was perfectly in line with the teachings of Jeasus to go to another country and take part in various wars and conquests. The rationale apparently was that somehow in doing so made them suffer the same way Jeasus did. That it was this self inflicted martyrdom that made a person holy.

    Something to ponder my friend.

    • Hello Gary,

      I don’t think we need a benchmark for “success”, but I do believe there’s a way to define a basic living standard that we should be working to provide all citizens of this planet. I’m not sure what that living standard is, but I’d love to explore ideas.

      Also, I don’t think self-torture solves anything. I’m not sure if you’re referring to what I’ve said about sacrifice, but if you are then I’d like to clarify that I was referring to the sacrifice of excessive consumption, pleasure, and excitement. I certainly don’t believe we need to physically suffer to help others, but I do believe we need to recognize the point at which wasting time and fulfilling our desires in spite of human suffering becomes morally wrong.

      • Hi Raam.

        Thanks for clarifying your point on the sacrifice topic. My co concern was not that you are aiming at the wrong places but my aim was simply to remind you that it can go way to far. I’m glad you have a good head on this topic.

        Now on the basic standard of living. That indeed would be a very interesting place to explore. I’ll start with clean water, adequate nutritious food, shelter from the elements, and perhaps clothe(we both know that clothe are climate specific). But that only addresses the physical needs. How do you define and address the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of us humans?

        Your shot my friend.

        • I think there are certain needs that the individual needs to be willing to address themselves. If the will to address mental, emotional, or spiritual needs is not there, no amount of external help will change that. However, what can be provided is the support and the willingness to help. We can do that by becoming more giving and caring, by doing more listening and less ego-driven talking. We can do it by being more open-minded and more detached from outcomes and expectations.

          We can address the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of other human beings by being human ourselves.

  18. Hi Raam

    Another great discussion which neatly follows on from Sandra’s “Minimalism v moderation” discussion on her blog. Thank you everyone for such wonderfully thought provoking comments and different perspectives.

    This is the way I am trying to live my life.

    I am just a couple of years from retirement, with a comfortable home, grown up family and happily married to a man who, whilst broadly sharing my views, is not at the moment as committed to these radical lifestyle changes as I am. This is something to be worked round and worked on, but can hold me back a bit.

    I can see no virtue in shedding a lot of my possessions just for the sake of it. What I have at the moment, in material things, can be used, re-used, re-fashioned or adapted or shared with others. I spend only what is neccessary and try to either buy second hand, fairly traded, ethical, green goods. My home is not high maintenance, heated sensibly and would be large enough to accomodate the whole family if need be. My garden enables me to grow a fair amount of vegetables.

    Financially I have to plan for possible redundancy and a retirement where our pension provision is both well below what we were previously expecting and also deferred by a couple of years. So, I have to use my financial resources wisely.

    That being said, I try to live spending as little as possible with the view that the less I spend on myself, the more I can use my money to help other people.
    But whatever I can do, I will always be aware of the things I am unable to do, because the poverty and need is so overwhelming. I can only make a conscious commitment everyday, to do my utmost to make this world a better place.

    One final thought that bothers me. All this talk about consuming less has one downside – the inevitable loss of employment and ensuing financial hardship. This is seldom mentioned, but must surely be addressed. Does anyone have any thoughts on that?

    • Hi Stella,

      I’ve thought about that downside — less consumption leading to unemployment and financial hardship — but I think that there’s such an abundance of “stuff” in the world already that we’re really just wasting away, creating jobs that revolve around (and depend on) waste purely for the sake of maintaining jobs.

      It makes more sense to me that we would find alternate ways of generating income, perhaps through utilizing the growing economies in developing countries. Instead of focusing solely on working for ourselves, perhaps there’s some way we could still earn a decent living while helping developing countries grow.

      I’m definitely not an economist and I admit that I don’t know enough to come up with well-thought-out answers, but my gut tells me that if we cut way back on our consumption, we wouldn’t be out of work. Instead, we’d end up using our extra resources (both physical and time resources) for things that we genuinely enjoy, including helping others.

      • Yes Raam, I agree that we have to grasp the nettle of the effects on the employment situation as a result of decreasing consumerism. Hopefully more sustainable employment would fill the gap. But this is another problem in trying to get other people round to wanting to live with less. One thing is for sure. Something has got to happen and soon. The way things are going, we are stripping the world of all it’s natural resources and burying them in a hole in the ground.

        There’s no easy answer. Everything is inter-connected. Take your coffee issue. If we all gave up coffee and gave what we would have spent to the poor, we would be creating another hardship in taking away the livlihood of the coffee farmers.

        It all makes my head spin! But it’s great to discuss and get new perspectives from like minded people.

        • Hi Stella,

          I think the coffee issue can become a none issue. Sure, if everyone stopped drinking coffee today, lots of people would be out of jobs. But what if, over the course of 20 years lets say, coffee consumption decreased and the money that was being spent on coffee got funneled back into the countries where the coffee was being harvested to support real development and increase the basic standard of living for all?

          You’re right that there’s certainly no quick solution, but I think the mindset needs to change in the long-run. We’re simply not living sustainable lives and spending money on a cup of coffee when that money could’ve been used to feed an entire family for a week doesn’t feel moral to me.

          One could argue that buying the coffee is acceptable if we’re contributing in other ways, but that means that we could keep justifying things like that (“polluting the environment is OK because we’re advancing science and hopefully that means we’ll be able to give back more in the long-run”). It just doesn’t work.

          A change in mindset — a switch to living as sustainably as we possibly can while keeping an eye on the future and finding alternative ways to continue evolving — will show us which choices make sense and which ones don’t. We need to think about the effect our choices are having on the future… 50, 100, 200, 500 years down the road.

  19. Raam,

    Great post! I agree wholeheartedly. Not only are we choosing to buy stuff we don’t need, but we now take other people’s money (debt) to buy stuff we don’t need. I don’t see too many people taking out debt to give to charity. In addition, the interest on the debt takes further money away from people’s ability to give.

    Obviously, as you mentioned, this takes a heart and mind change to understand how our personal choices affect the larger community. Hopefully, we can share our perspective and convince people to live humbly and give generously.

    Keep up the good work,
    Eric

    • Hi Eric,

      I had never thought about debt and charity that way, but it’s so true. Debt really is a sign of selfishness (unless it’s unavoidable short-term debt related to business or education — and even then, I’m of the firm belief that all education should be free). I was in debt for the first 10 years of my adult life and now that I’m debt free, I’m never going back. I’d much rather suffer the inconvenience of delayed gratification than deal with the burden of debt. Besides, having no debt gives me the freedom to think beyond myself and really decide what I want to do with my time and my life.

  20. Raam this is such a powerful, thought provoking and heart felt post. I can tell through the usage of your words and thoughts that this came directly from your heart. And no brother you are not alone.

    I think the first issue that we should look at when trying to develop a more human/global conscious is our number one short fall; Individual emancipation. We’re so focused on ourselves, on if we have enough clothes, money, food, lights and so on, that we forget their’s others in “our” world that can’t even imagine what those privileges feel like. We live in a society that teaches we are community but practices individualism. We are taught to sit alone, eat alone and stick to those we know. So when it comes to reaching out to help others we’re not to sure how to execute such a task.

    Secondly I feel we have to fight for our right, not the rights of freedom, justice, equality (as defined by the understanding of a particular group of individuals) but for our right to be human. Our right to be excepted with our differences of understanding. No way can a group of people come together and set laws that speak for every person, and when that happens we leave some out to dry. We get so washed up with everything the media feeds us we loose sight that regardless of our differences (color, ethnicity, religion) we are human and we owe it to ourselves to find a way to live and work together with that understanding, in order to sustain a successful future existence.

    No one group of people should feel out-casted from the human race because of some difference in methodology. We should feel incumbent to reach out and help those that also inhabit this earth, because they too play a part in “our” future.

    • Alyx,

      I love what you said about needing to fight for our right to be human. I feel there is a certain standard of living that every human on this planet as the right to and that it’s the responsibility of every other human being to ensure that standard is met.

      Unfortunately, this planet is still so divided, separated by imaginary borders and ruled by governments who decide what happens when and where. But I think that’s changing (as we just saw happen in Egypt), especially with the connective nature of the Internet. If enough people come together and demand something, there are no powers that can stop them. We need to start demanding that the rights for all human beings be upheld and we need to start setting an example for others to follow by reducing our own waste and making an effort to share and contribute wherever and whenever we can.

  21. You had to use the coffee example didn’t you?! LOL

    Though I have escaped the invasive consumerism that comes from living in the States, I do still indulge in at lease one coffee every day. That equates to about $1/day (depending on the country). In a year, this amount equates to $365, which is way more than the minimum monthly income in many, many countries.

    After reading your post yesterday, I skipped out on my coffee today. It’s now 5:15 pm and this is the longest I’ve gone without a coffee in I don’t know how long.

    Though I live at a fairly minimum standard, you’re right, there are always ways to cutback and be more conscious about spending and buying things that we don’t need.

    • Jasmine, I’m the same way with coffee! I’ve tried to quit so many times and I always seem to fall back into the trap of finding some way to justify it. But in the end, the reality is that my body just doesn’t need it. And no matter what I do to justify it, that simple fact doesn’t change. Ever since coming back from India a few months ago, buying coffee has become so obviously unnecessary. Every time I drank a coffee or a soy latte, I would feel a little more guilty for spending money on something that has absolutely no health value.

      I found that photo at the top of this post while I was drinking a soy latte and it just hit me like a brick. My resulting thoughts became the basis for this post.

      I’ve switched almost entirely to tea now but I’ve been allowing myself a coffee every other day or so. Still, I’m determined to break the habit and switch to tea entirely. There’s nothing I find more annoying than hypocrisy, so if I’m going to talk about how it’s unnecessary then I need to change my own habits first!

      • While I comprehend the coffee “guilt”, there is the mention of tea in lieu of the coffee. However, what is the difference… I am sorry to challenge here, but there is fair trade in such “luxuries” and yes while tea has been claimed to have healthy properties, so has coffee. So where does one draw the line?? I have seen many injustices in the cultivation of tea, many lands are being destroyed to grow these teas, and how many peoples/cultures are being displaced affected with the cultivation of tea plantations?? Just a thought. For me, I still drink coffee, however I have cut back. I buy fair trade whenever possible and I attempt to be aware of all my purchases, be it food, clothes, whatever I need, KEY WORD HERE… need. I am eliminating “wants” from my schema, and attempting to only obtain what I need. It is really amazing, when one sets ones mind to do so, what one NEEDS versus what one WANTS!!!! I want many things but I am training my mind to pay attention to needs. At times, I think I NEED something, but rather than act on impulse, or as I call it…. Instant Gratification….. I ponder that perceived NEED and many many times it is a want and not a need. So as I grow, I am better able to define the difference between a need and a want. Another thing I am becoming aware of, is life is an organic, static process. The only constant is change and along with that change, some needs change, and it is OK!!! The greater my ability to flow with change, no matter what I perceive it to be, the easier it gets… and honestly, there have been times when my perception was skewed… due to past conditioning/societal occurrences.So I am learning needs change as life changes. The needs of a baby are different than the needs of an adult. Needs of 3rd world countries differ from technological societies, and so forth and so on. Basic human needs are the same, but processes differ. I am rambling here, all I really wanted to say was a reminder of the Golden Rule: If everyone treated each other the way they themselves would want to be treated,there would be a lot less fear and strife in the world…… which brings me to my favorite exclamation: Why can’t everyone simply all learn to get along? I agree there is much injustice in the world and I also agree I am powerless over much in the world, but I am NOT powerless over the choices I choose to make. Awareness is the key that unlocks the door, what we do with the door is up to the individual.

  22. I do believe we have a responsibility to help people in need. In my life I have been too self-centered to actually help anyone. I mean I give at church, and since we are a very small church in a small community, much of our money goes to the local children’s home. I purchase much of my food from Angelfood Ministries, so there are donations going to the hungry/homeless from those purchases. I have donated quite a bit of my stuff to a thrift store that supports the local animal shelter (yes it would be better if I could find one that supports a women’s shelter) by selling the stuff. But I don’t do anything specific myself. I don’t volunteer at the children’s home, or a soup kitchen or with Habitat for Humanity. Do I feel bad about that? Yes. Am I going to change my life to do anything about it? Hopefully. I think I can forgo a few things, a coffee here, a hamburger there and donate a few extra dollars a month. But I don’t know if I will get out and build anyone a home. Who knows, maybe I will. Your post has really given me something to think about.

    • I think it’s all part of the evolution of life, Jennifer. The very fact that you’re thinking about these things and making an effort means that you’re making a difference.

      We can all do something, and I think we can always do something more. It should be our goal to constantly find a balance between what we consume and take from the world, and what we give back and share.

      Will I never buy a $2 coffee again? I wanted that to be the case after writing this post, but I wasn’t going to beat myself up if I caved into the craving. And the truth is that I have bought coffee since writing this post, but you can be sure that buying it felt a lot different. I have decreased my coffee-buying habit by at least 70% since writing this post and I make an effort every day to reshape those habits.

      It’s in the act of making a conscious effort that we find real change and as long as we’re conscious of the choices we make and what we’re aiming to improve, we will end up in a better, more giving place.

  23. Reading this post again, and wondering if you’ve read John Perkins “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” or “Hoodwinked.”

    I think reading those was one of my first realizations that there are things in the world more important that what I want to buy or what I’m hungry for. It’s all connected…

    • Hi Kristin!

      I haven’t read either of those, but I will definitely check them out. There is so much we don’t realize about how connected we all are and about how each of our actions really does have a huge influence when stretched out over time.

  24. I’m a little late to this conversation, but I wanted to comment. I believe we absolutely have a moral responsibility to work towards equality for all and make the world a better place. I am guilty of all the things you mention: choosing pleasure over giving to those less fortunate and as difficult as it is, I am changing my ways little by little.

    I AM striving for a simpler life, yes. But my #1 motivation is so I have the time and resources to go out into the world and make a difference first hand. I don’t want to just write off checks to people I’ve never seen or met. I want to know who I am helping and I want to see the smiles on their faces when they understand that there are people in the world who do care.

    I don’t want to just retire and sit on a beach and I think a lot of us feel the same way. I have discovered recently that the only way to live a life of true fulfillment is by giving.

    Powerful post Raam, thank you for this.

  25. So glad you tweeted this link today Raam as I missed it earlier. Powerful stuff for sure! For years I’ve wrestled with this issue as well.

    After spending years living in poverty-stricken parts of the world, it’s even more of a struggle living back in Canada. I have bitten my tongue a million times, as people complain about crazy things compared to what others are dealing with. (Can’t find a pair of shoes? Heck, lots don’t have ANY shoes!).

    I often ponder why the world is so unjust and why people on one side of the world don’t care enough about the other side and use up waaaaay more than our share of resources. I think it’s for several reasons:
    - our culture (especially TV) promotes consumption (people on House Hunters are always complaining about needing more space when they already live in what is a mansion compared to most people)

    - people feel the problem is too big so they don’t want to hear/see/think about it (yet AMAZING how small acts can make significant differences and one person CAN make a difference!)

    - people don’t want to think about it because they don’t want to feel guilty about that cup of coffee or whatever (I drink coffee but only buy organic, fair trade, as well am a vegetarian, eat free-range eggs, etc etc so people can make some changes that aren’t as harmful to others or the environment)

    - people are doubtful about giving money and where it goes (good concern – I’ve seen some disastrous “development” projects, however researching organizations can be done, as well as you mentioned, change needs to come about through our time, energy and talents and not just $)

    - people use the excuse of “there are people in need in my own country, so why should I help others?” This one lists my all time top pet peeve! People are people – doesn’t matter what artificial boundaries separate us. Just because we won the lottery of living in a wealthy country doesn’t mean we get to ignore the rest. Also, wealthy countries have social programs that others are not as fortunate to be able to access.

    - people lack enough empathy (a separate topic – how do we teach this?)

    Many think of giving as taking something from them. I call it my “selfish work” because I always get way more than I give. Also, living with less is actually liberating and light – those with tons of stuff are weighted down in more ways than they realize.

    Another important angle is looking at the definition of “rich” and “poor”. Yes, we’re rich on the outside but I believe poverty-stricken on the inside (look at the rates of depression, anxiety, stress, suicide, divorce) as well as the loneliness and detachment. People at home often look like zombies to me, just going through the routine of life. People in poverty-stricken places may be poor on the outside but my gosh, are they ever rich on the inside! They know how to appreciate every small thing, live in the moment, care for each other, and celebrate, celebrate, celebrate.

    Sorry this is so long…clearly hit strongly with me and I could go on but I’d better stop!

    • Merna, you can go on for as long as you’d like! Your points are so relevant and so spot on!

      I often try to think about the root cause… of all the points you listed, which one is the closest to the root of the problem?

      I feel that the problem lies with what you said about people feeling alienated from the rest of the world. We somehow feel different from everyone else, as if we deserve a better life because of where we were born.

      Yes, we are privileged. We are elite. We are lucky. But that only means that we have more responsibility. Because of where we’re born, we have a greater capacity for helping others.

      When I was visiting the schools in the remote mountains of Nepal, I looked into the eyes of hundreds of children and realized that what was simply in my head — what knowledge, experiences, and perspective was in my brain, the same grey matter they all held in their heads — that was what made me responsible for finding a way to share my abundance.

      As long as we feel superior — as long as we feel it’s our right to have more simply because of where we were born — the world will never know equality.

      We, the one’s with all the resources, are the only ones who can break the pattern of inequality. A poor farmer in India can only do so much. But me and you? People who have the know-how and the freedom to spend time on the Internet? We’re the ones who can make the biggest difference.

      • You’re absolutely right about how we are in a position to break the pattern of inequality. As you said, with all we’ve been given, it is our responsibility and within our capacity. So if alienation and feelings of superiority are big root causes, how can we change this?

        I think people travelling, connecting via the internet, getting to know immigrants at home, etc. is all huge but what else? Since personal connection is so key, I’d like to see more classrooms partner with classrooms overseas. With more access to computers and skype, it gives opportunity to those who have it.

        Besides spending 4 years volunteering and working in Africa and the Middle East, giving talks to various groups, setting up a non-profit that’s helping with projects in South Africa, sponsoring a child, and tweeting about actions people can take, I’m not sure what else to do? The desire and passion are definitely there…just looking for the means!! (Any and all ideas welcome!)

        The more we can keep the conversation going wherever we are, and connecting with like-minded people to make things happen, the better we’ll all be.

        You’re doing amazing things Raam – keep on!

  26. I have a lump in my throat and tears are coarsing down my face. Thank you for putting into words so many of the struggles that I face as well.

    For the past several years I have been in mourning. From 1998-2004, I lived or traveled to work in 4 different disaster zones and spent extended time doing development work in Haiti and Pakistan. I felt alive. The simplest things brought joy. There was time to smell the roses. It was an immense privilege to stand beside people in times of crisis. In essence I felt like it was what I was made to do.

    Marriage and two little boys later, my life has drifted into something I don’t quite recognize. It feels like reality has been replaced by so much plastic nonsense.

    This may sound strange but I find myself watching Hotel Rwanda or Slumdog Millionaire to re-center myself on what real life is about.

    I want the boys that I am raising to become men who understand that the life experienced here in the states is not the life lived everywhere.

    I have often felt alone in my own country because the way I view life seems to be so dissonant to the way life is viewed by most of those who surround me.

    I’ve often thought of how I justify certain expenditures, or how people can live the way that they choose to live. I cannot justify my own actions. I usually give others the benefit of the doubt by saying, “They don’t know any better. They haven’t seen the world as I have.” But the world is getting smaller. People are more and more exposed to other’s realities.

    I remember after slumdog came out I heard a few people talk about how the writers had really gone to extremes. I thought, “Nope, that’s the way it really is. That person is not ready for reality.”

    Thank you. You are not alone.

    • Lorie,

      I have no doubt your boys will grow to be great men — with a mother like you, having so much compassion, love, first-hand experience, and perspective of how the world really works, how could they not?

      I realized shortly after returning from my trip to India that my unique perspective — my knowledge of both worlds if you will — gives me an opportunity that others don’t have. Being able to see both sides gives me the chance to find commonalities, to find ways to bridge both sides and help bring equality (even if only in the way people think about the rest of the world).

      I consider myself an experiment, too. I’ve been living in the United States for the past eight months and I’ve been observing how my own perspective is changing — how my own subconscious quietly readjusts to the abundance and picturesque world around me. (Having my own blog posts to reread has been absolutely incredible…. I reread this post and felt so moved by it… as if it was written by a different person.)

      Thank you for sharing your story here and for being you.

  27. Raam,

    Thanks for sending me this post.

    It’s not enough to declutter and live simply. I somehow found myself forgetting to live minimally living here in this comfort culture. We also need responsibility and constant renewal in dedicating ourselves to give to the imbalance.

    I felt the same way you do when I see freedom fighters risking their lives for beliefs in other parts of the world, and here in this privileged society, we’re afraid to be individuals. The gap is so wide, and the polarity so striking, it’s overwhelming to know where to start. There has to be a collective effort to take responsibility.

    Keep reminding us, Raam. I am so grateful to have you remind me.

    • Rhina,

      After returning from my six month trip in India, I had not intended to stay in the developed world for more than a few months. It’s now been almost a year since I returned and I’ve observed how my perception of reality (and of needs) has been affected by my environment. I’ve struggled to maintain the perspective I had when I wrote this post and I often come back to read it just so I can remember where I need to place my priorities. The ‘comfort culture’ rubs off easily and quietly changes our perspective of life itself.

      When it comes to addressing the inequality, it is indeed overwhelming to know where to start. However, the first step is recognizing that we need to start and then remembering every day that such inequalities exist. We can all start by asking the question with all seriousness and all our heart: What can we do?

  28. The one way I justify that $2 coffee is if I create something that creates an even greater output. If I drink $2 of coffee and have enough energy to volunteer my whole day (which ends up helping those in need) vs no coffee and sitting around on my couch all day, then the $2 is warranted. What do you think Raam?

    • Matt,

      I initially had the same thought, however what bothered me was that the coffee has no real health benefit to me. Scientific studies have shown that caffeine doesn’t give us any more energy than we’d have without it — we simply train our brains to expect the caffeine and allow ourselves to believe we cannot work without it.

      So, the truth is, spending $2 on a cup of coffee that does nothing for us other than contribute to an unnecessary stimulation, seems wrong when that $2 could go to feed a hungry child. When 17,000 children are dying every day from hunger, spending $2 on something that I don’t need just seems morally wrong.

      But I’m still going over all this in my head. The truth is, I still spend money on coffee. But every time I do, you can be sure that I think about this post and ask myself ‘why?’. (I also recognize that spending enormous amounts of time thinking about the solution to this problem may not be the best use of my time, since part of me feels like the ethics of buying a $2 cup of coffee is similar to the silly decision to worry about all the bugs I might be killing by riding the bus instead of walking to my destination: sometimes we miss the bigger picture and waste our time focusing on stimulating problems while more pressing issues go unnoticed).

      All that said, I do agree with you: Buying a $2 coffee and then using your time to create things of value is a lot better than spending $2 and then just wasting the day away. But that all comes down to how we spend our time. No matter what we do with our money, we should be spending our time wisely. Leisure is OK, but in excess it becomes selfish.

      Also, another note on the coffee: I justify buying the $2 coffee because I spend the entire day at the cafe working from their WiFi and charging my laptop. To me, that $2 isn’t about the coffee as much as it’s about exchanging value for the desk space, WiFi connection, and electricity that I use for 6 – 8 hours. :)

  29. Raam,
    I am very impressed with your writings and the ways in which you view our world. It saddens me to see how dependent we have become on wealth and technology when others are just struggling to survive. I would be lying if I said that I am not wasting my time and money on such petty things. From the gas guzzling , air polluting SUV I drive to the 100′s of mind wasting video games my kids have scattered throughout their room. Wasted money, and for what? Am I better off having a vehicle that can go from 0-60 in about seven seconds while hauling eight people and a couple of dogs? Are my kids lives better since they are able to push the X, Y, triangle and square buttons faster than their friends? The obvious answer is no. So why do I keep spending my money on frivolous objects? Why do any of us want to purchase expensive unimportant things?” It is what many of us grew up with, it is what most of us have grown accustomed to. These material objects are what many feel defines our worth.
    It can’t go on like this. Me and the millions upon millions of other selfish people need to stop and look hard to see what is truly important. Our time and money needs to be going towards the betterment of our society. I am not talking about just our neighborhoods, cities, states or even country. I am talking globally! Right now our world population is around seven billion it is being estimated that our world population will be over nine billion people by 2050. Somehow and somewhere we are going to have to figure out how to feed two billion more people in less than forty years and we can’t even feed the ones we have now. I do not think most people see what a catastrophe this will be if action is not taken. This will not just affect third world countries, but with not enough land to provide food for the crazy amount of people being born in to this world a planet wide famine is imminent. This is why the whole world needs to work as one. We need to rejuvenate land that has been devastated from drought, improper management and overuse. Then we need to educate the people who live on this land on how to properly care for it, so it can stay fertile. This is where our time and money should be going.

    • Brent, thank you so much for openly and honestly sharing truth here. As someone who comes from an upper middle class American family, I can absolutely relate to the big SUVs and video games.

      You asked, “Why do any of us want to purchase expensive unimportant things?”. When I reflected on this question I realized there are probably a number of things that cause such desires (and again, I can absolutely relate to such wants and desires, from that expensive snowboard, to the fast triathlon bike, to the fancy Audi TT).

      But when I reflect on why I no longer have any interest in expensive unimportant things, I realized that it’s because I found purpose and meaning, because suddenly my life felt connected to the global community, clearly and without doubt a member of humanity.

      Prior to my trip to India, I didn’t feel a great sense of purpose or connection to the world. So what did I do? I created purpose: Make money, become financially stable, get a really good job, get expensive stuff that I don’t really need because hey, at least it’s a goal, it makes me feel like my life has purpose.

      So perhaps we have a desire to purchase expensive unimportant things because we simply have nothing better to do. We don’t know any better. We don’t feel a connection to the world, so we create our own little worlds so that our identity has a place in which to exist.

      The power I discovered was that the greatest good I can do for the world starts with my own life. If I can change my life and set an example for those around me, even if they don’t appear to be influenced, I’m doing something far greater than setting a bad example but attempting to do good by sending some money to a charity.

      The power of setting an example with my own life reverberates through time. The power of setting an example with my life is priceless.

  30. I discovered this post while reading one on BECOMING MINIMALIST. For an Indian, what is truly painful is that we live in the midst of mind numbing poverty but have elected to find happiness in consuming more and more and more. We don’t even have to step outside our homes to encounter poverty —- we meet it daily when we open the door to the household help. Yet, we are hurtling into mindless consumption, and we are raising a generation which believes that the bigger the SUV/diamond/vacation home, the happier one is.

    • Priya, “hurtling into mindless consumption” is a great description of the problem that faces most of the developed world. When I visited a family friend in India (in New Delhi), I remember seeing how separated their world was from that of those with much less. But while the contrast seemed stronger in India, I recognize the exact same thing in America, where perhaps the ‘poverty’ is not quite a poverty of basic necessities, but rather a poverty of happiness and freedom.

      I feel that the basic underlying problem, as you pointed out, is the act of looking for happiness in consumption. Until we recognize that happiness is already here, right here within us, until we recognize that, we won’t find it.