My friend has been in the news these days. Lovely guy, king of the volunteers, always canvassing for the best local politician or local arts program. Charming but not slick, handsome but unassuming, a devoted advocate for good without any personal agenda. Sweet. I sincerely hope that the charges of embezzlement are not true.
Be assured: this is not a post about my friend, or about his relative innocence or guilt. From here on our fallen hero will be a fabrication – a foil for my reflection – as are any suppositions about the path to his sad unraveling. This post is about aspiration and money, perception and realty. It’s about making an honest living and living honestly. Buddha called it Right Livelihood.
Mine is a small village in many ways. Those of us who are involved in local politics, who work on civic projects and community efforts, all know each other. You’d think there were only 150 people in this village instead of 150,000. I can tell you that no matter how ‘grassroots’ you may be, or how small your community, if you are seen as a power broker it can be heady. You will feel the pull to play the part. It’s exciting to have that kind of agency. Your inner compass may start to spin.
I thought of myself that way a few years ago. I wore heels and a Blackberry in a holster on my hip. I was at every function, smartly dressed, working the room. I ran fundraisers, attended fundraisers, went silently broke at fundraisers. I was in the Big League! I was faking it and making it, but not really. It was vapor. My part-time, under-paid job with the fancy title was slipping away. I prayed all these connections would present me with a step up, but they just presented me with more chances to rub elbows. I looked like a player and I played the part, but I was marooned on an island of pretense. I imagine my friend, our fallen hero, in a similar situation. It’s hard to keep up appearances, especially when people’s ideas about you are your only currency.
Henry David Thoreau knows what I’m talking about. In his essay “Economics” he writes about his early career – trying to be accepted, writing fluff and bits about the weather, working his way into “important” circles, waiting for his talent to be praised and for the local elite to award him his rightful place at the table.
(The world is a much better place because he stopped waiting, don’t you think?).
His epiphany,which led to his retreat to Walden pond, is explained in a parable: A basket maker takes note of the local town’s wealthiest residents. Lawyers, doctors, politicians – their rich livelihoods are supported by the town’s people. He decides that he will sell them his baskets and therefore be supported in like fashion. When he knocks on the doors of the well-off he is shocked to hear the same thing repeatedly, “We have no need for baskets.”. He is outraged! Shouldn’t they support him as they are supported? Turns out the answer is no. If you have nothing they need you’ll have no business. But Thoreau took the basket maker’s dilemma to heart. His decision wasn’t to change his profession. His decision was to make it so he never had to “sell baskets” again. His time in Emerson’s cabin was an exercise in needing less, not making more.
Did our fallen hero, after taking his seat at the table of power brokers, find himself unable to pay for the meal? Did he start a tab in hopes that his baskets would finally sell because of his new status? A tragic hero Shakespeare would recognize, it seems.
I remember thinking, just after my election to the local School Board, how unseemly it would be for me to take a job at the local coffee shop or grocery store. People’s ideas of my political clout (and therefore my ability to use it) would not match up with my menial labor and unquestionably low pay. I was trapped by my social position. My “importance” could have very well led me to real poverty, and possibly to make irrevocably bad decisions. Instead I chose, paradoxically, to retreat from public life, at least the meaningless parts of it, and began working towards a sustainable family economy – free of the proverbial basket sale. I began to work hard to live well with very little, and am grateful to be liberated from the need for status. I am a budding farmer, feeding my family the very best food, learning compassionate animal slaughter, turning my attention inward – towards my children, my household, my livelihood. I am not ashamed or imprisoned by our relative low income. My truth is reflected on the outside as well as inside. I have changed.
Our fallen hero is someone I understand. I feel compassion for the lessons he’s learning. I feel love for him as he publicly faces his inner turmoil. And I hope he eventually finds freedom in his loss of status.