Thursday, November 24, 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

"For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away."  Matthew 25:29

Today in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving.  We fill the day with parades, football, cooking, family, and shopping.  We may recall the Pilgrims and the Native Americans feasting together.  How many of us take the time to reflect on how blessed we are and be thankful for what we have?

The original celebration of Thanksgiving was different.  It wasn't merely a harvest festival or a block party.  The Pilgrims were truly grateful for what they had.  They had much to complain about.  They originally had meant to go to Virginia, they weren't expecting the cold New England winters.  They had lost many of their companions to the harsh weather.  Even by the standards of the day, they had little in material comforts.  For one day at least, they chose to ignore all their hardships and be thankful for what they did have.


There is an old story about a man who lost his feet in an accident.  He grew bitter about his loss and was always complaining.  Finally one day he met a man who lost his legs in an accident.  He realized how much worse his life could have been, and he starting being grateful for what he did have.


Having this attitude of gratitude by itself makes life less unpleasant.  The consequences are more than just mental.  As Jesus explained in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, we need to care for what we are given.  If you are not thankful for what you have, you will not take care of it, and you will lose it.

We will need an attitude of gratitude to take care of what we have been given as we make the Long Ascent.

"This is the day which Jehovah hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it." Psalm 118:25 (ASV)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Coming Age of Plenty

It's not what you think.

The cornucopia is a frequent symbol of the season.  Most people who talk about the coming Age of Plenty believe that the next high-tech breakthrough will solve all our problems; they are sometimes called cornucopians. I do not share their belief.

According to Wiktionary, plenty means "A sufficient quantity. More than enough."  This concept of "plenty" has gotten warped over the past century, which I like to call the Age of Profligacy.

Back in my great-grandparents day, they would say "We have plenty," or "We have enough."  By this they would mean that they had a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, enough food not to go hungry, etc.  In other words, all their material needs were met.

The problem came in when we started using materials goods for purposes other than meeting our material needs.  Take food as an example.  We need energy to live and to do things, and we need basic building blocks to repair and rebuild our bodies.  Food satisfies those needs.  When we start using food for other purposes, such as to entertain, to stimulate, to relax, we can easily eat more than what we need.  In extreme cases of overindulgence we can end up as half-ton people.

With our economy predicated on perpetually consuming more, marketers have been encouraging us to overindulge.  They specifically try to simultaneously make us feel somehow inadequate and to convince us that buying whatever they are selling will solve that inadequacy.

This never was good for people's bodies or spirits. However, while resources were extremely plentiful compared with demand, the system worked as designed.  But that hasn't been true for two generations now.  Starting with the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, availability of resources has been a limiting factor in our economy.  As a free market economy is supposed to work, lack of availability is evidenced by increasing prices.  This allows for smooth adjustments -- sometimes too smooth.  Only when government tries to force prices down do we get other means of restriction, such as long lines waiting for gas.

Eventually there comes a price where people voluntarily cut back.  In 2008 Americans did this with gasoline when it reached $4 a gallon.  Prices went down when a falling economy pushed demand back down. Once prices went back down, people resumed their profligate ways.

I expect this process will be repeated many times over the coming decades.  But each time it happens, more people will step back and look at what they really need and come to the conclusion, "We have enough."  When the majority of people have done that, the Age of Plenty will have arrived.

That will be a major milestone on the Long Ascent.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Class vs. Income

Recently in the United States there has been much talk about class warfare.  As disturbing as the concept is, I am more concerned about a fundamental distinction that has been lost in modern America: the difference between class and income.

This is due in large part to the success of the US in allowing people to change their circumstances.  Class used to have a far different meaning.  When you were born into the slave class in nineteenth century America, not only did you remain a slave for the rest of your life, but your children were similarly condemned.  If you were born into the aristocracy in sixteenth century England, you remained an aristocrat, no matter how much a fool or scoundrel you were.

These class distinctions were maintained by law, and thanks to the struggles of those who came before us, they are largely gone.  The term "middle class" still exists, but the way it is used now, people only mean "middle income", between "rich" and "poor".  The distinction between them is rather arbitrary; for example, "the poor" are those who earn less than the "poverty level".  This arbitrariness makes it easy to go from rich to poor and possible to go from poor to rich.

Even though we don't have the same kind of legally enforced class system as in the past, I think it is still a useful concept.  We still have mental and cultural barriers that keep people in their same circumstances.  I define the middle class as those who work for a living; the lower class does not work, and the upper class has others work for them.  As a further gradation, the upper middle class work for themselves, and the lower middle class work for someone else.  This is a completely separate dimension from wealth and poverty; each class has rich and poor members.  The importance is that members within each class have more interests in common than they do with people of equal income in other classes.  For example, the lower middle class still has to show up for work every day, whether they are flipping burgers or starring in movies.

It is important to understand that no class is better than the other.  All are necessary, or at least unavoidable.  (Even if we work until the day we die, no one works from the day they are born.)  Each class requires different strengths.  We just need to think clearly about our circumstances.

If you are confused about which class you fit in, you can easily get lost on the Long Ascent.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Ultimate Forms of Savings

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal; for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also."  Matthew 6:19-21 (ASV).

More and more people are coming to the realization that things cannot keep going on the way they have been.  From the limited perspective of their own lifetimes, and possibly their parent's or children's lifetimes (even grandparent's or grandchildren's), they just see progress in the past and decline in the future.  Many are asking what is the best way to hang on to what they have.  For some, gold is the answer.  Others rely on a well-stocked pantry.  Guns and ammo are another popular option.  There are good arguments for all of them.  But none of them are ultimate; they can all be taken away or used up.

Obviously, the ultimate form of wealth is one that transcends death.  Various religions have different concepts of what exactly that is.  Jesus talked about "storing treasures in heaven."  Karma is another such concept for those who believe in reincarnation.  Spiritual growth is certainly a worthy pursuit, and I encourage anyone who is interested in this to find someone to help them.  I cannot however help you choose; the best I can do is relate my own experiences.

After your favorite deity, the next best thing to rely on is yourself.  Specifically, if you are looking to save what you can for the future, your knowledge and your health are the best investments.  Both can be maintained for most of a lifetime.  Neither can be stolen from you.  Others may be able to damage both, but they cannot in doing so make themselves smarter or healthier.  There are many options still available for improving both mind and body; I will touch upon a number of them in coming weeks.

After your spirit, mind, and body lies your relationships and your community.  In this world, other people will continue on after you are gone.  Hopefully, they will be there for you when your body and mind start to decline.  Many sources of advice exist for how to have good relationships with others, and from the statistics, many need help in this area.  How to build strong communities is a bit of a mystery to me.  Many attempts have been made, but in a majority of cases they only grow while the founders are still alive; the next generation just maintains what they have, and decline sets in quickly thereafter.

Resilient, cohesive communities are one of the most valuable assets on the Long Ascent.