What is wealth?

Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
– Bob Dylan

In a short story by Len Deighton, common soldiers on the front line were discussing what wealth was. Some said true weath was posession of land. Others, said it was energy- fuel, oil, gas and coal, even wood. Still others, said it was gold. One said it was time. For many in the world, it may be not having to scrounge their next meal.

What then is true wealth, where is true value? What things are the most important in our lives? What – conversely – is dispensable? C.S Lewis paraphrases Jesus’ hard-hitting story in the gospel by noting that there is a journey every one of us must go on, a journey on which we may not take our right arm or our right eye. What is really important?

I’ve been thinking about wealth during this first week of working from home. As a boy I read a children’s book on survival (Puffin, “How to survive“), and in it there was an acronym for helping you get your priorities right in – for example – an air-crash. The acronym was PFAWF. Protection – First Aid – Food – Water. In that order. It strikes me as being a most instructive acronym. and indeed possibly quite counter-intuitive. It’s not obvious. Dealing with someone’s wounds or looking for water won’t help you, if you and your casualty can’t survive the night.

As a Scouter taking young people to camp, I recognised a number of things that someone looking after people out of doors in the UK cannot have too much of. The first would be hot water. The second, tarpaulins. As someone who has done a lot of business travelling, I’ll acknowledge that in the end, the only really important things on my person for a long-haul journey would be my passport and my credit card.

In the garden yesterday I picked up a piece of flint – there is much of that round here, situated as we are at the foot of the chalky Downs. More of that flint later. What’s important? What is wealth? Water? Air? Of course. What represents wealth? Cleanliness may – or may not – spring from wealth. Plenty of poor people are clean and tidy of course, and there may be unclean rich people, but it’s fair to say that the means to keep oneself clean and tidy – access to water, clean clothes etc – is itself wealth. Wealth may be access to privacy or indeed, being able to feel the sun on your face.

For a prisoner in a labour camp, wealth may be access to slightly more food. Prisoners held in slave camps dream of fatty foods – cakes and so forth. Wealth may be a brief moment of respite and peace; it may be just a cushion under your arse. It may be a pair of shoes that don’t leak. It may be a pair of shoes. It may be shelter from the rain and the grinding, incessant winter wind.

Back to the flint: our ancestors used flint as a tool. There was a far-off turning point in pre-history when humans became greater than animals, a point when our ancestors’ lives became slightly more bearable than the life of a brute beast. At that point, you find sharp objects – tools. You find pieces of flint. Tools. Knives. Lewis and Clark explored North America with little more than rifles, knives and axe heads, and the means to sharpen those tools. Today for all the technology that surrounds us, we could barely live like hunter-gatherers without sharp implements. That piece of flint once represented wealth. We should consider today what is important -what represents true wealth, and that which is dispensable.

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