Wealth consists not in having possessions but in having few wants.
Esther de Waal
Monday morning when I checked in with the Internet to find out the temperature (27 degrees and snowing), I encountered one of those investor “alerts” that I see every so often. This one was titled “Economist Caution: Prepare for ‘Massive Wealth Destruction.'” Sometimes the voice is trying to sell gold or silver, but this one was urging everyone to sell before impending recession worldwide.
The word in the article is that billionaires, including Donald Trump, are selling out. If billionaires are doing this, then all of us should be doing this too, right? After all, they’re billionaires because they’re smart. Very, actually, and that’s why you need to think twice when they are urging action, as Trump is, based on a professed concern for the collective.
Take this case, for example. If enough of the billionaires sell now to start a stampede based on an alarm they know to be false, then they can go back into the market later and buy low. When it becomes clear that world economies are a lot more stable and resilient than they predicted, they will make yet another fortune from undervalued stocks whose price is beginning to climb.
This reminds me of a quotation by Velda Johnston: “Great wealth is its own nationality.” When we get to a critical mass of billionaires who have no allegiance to anything other than their net worth, then civilization really will be in trouble. Those who are fear-mongering may see that we’re beginning to wake up to that fact.
This news alert reminded me of a recent visit with two people benefiting from a program at St. Elizabeth Shelter, this one to provide low-rent housing for qualifying individuals. One is Joana Armann and the other is Vicente Villareal. Their respective stories are very different, and yet they have important things in common. Their small apartments were both very tidy, furnished with mementos of interesting lives, and they are both in places of gratitude that their needs are being met. There was no evidence afoot of wanting much more.
Joana is 85 and has made her way to Santa Fe from Nebraska, Michigan, California, Colorado, and Turkey. She grew up on a farm during the Dust Bowl and has many memories of helping with dairy cows and gardening, and it left an imprint of resourcefulness on her slight self. She has a college degree, and she worked as an employee and in her own businesses while also raising four children.
She has been both widowed and divorced, and one senses that she was fulfilling “ought to’s,” as exemplified by the mother she described as pliant. Joana was clearly made of more independent stuff and probably suffered from trying to conform. She ran a homemakers’ service at one point, managed three apartment houses at another, had an editing business, an antique store, and also worked in wine and cheese shops. Her marriage to a Turk ended in a divorce he arranged in Las Vegas that left her homeless and with no resources but her Social Security benefits to deal with alcoholism. In moving toward recovery, she eventually found St. Elizabeth.
For six years, Joana has been living in her apartment, very attractively decorated with some furnishings from Turkey. Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently fell and had to have a hip replacement. She is now suffering from recurring blood clots that are postponing surgery for the cancer. A spunky, intelligent woman, she seems to be at peace with what is possible now and is looking forward to a granddaughter’s visit next spring.
Vicente Villareal, a small, wiry man of 65, was born in the Alcalde Pueblo in northern New Mexico. He is of Kiowa and Spanish descent, and his features are clean and sharp, the Spanish influence seeming to dominate. Perhaps if he had stayed in New Mexico, his life would have turned out differently. However, when his family moved to Los Angeles, he got involved in the drug activity in his neighborhood, and his life was forever altered.
He had gone to Catholic school for eight years before entering public school. He says that his parents were very moral people, and his siblings were not similarly affected. His history goes first one way, then another. On the one hand was education, including one year of college, and good jobs as a draftsman. On the other was the disorder created by drugs and by the addiction to opiates that was established in his late 20s.
Vicente’s history includes times when he lived on the street, committed crimes, and was incarcerated. He went through three or four rehabilitation programs, married a woman on drugs, and had a daughter whom his mother adopted. At one point, he was on a methadone program that he refers to as an ineffective “government smokescreen.” He describes methadone as more addictive than opiates. It caused weight gain, he says, and made it hard to rest during sleep. He found withdrawal worse than with opiates.
As for drugs, he says they are everywhere. Politicians, physicians, scientists (he worked at Los Alamos Labs for a while), laymen–every type of person is involved somewhere, and the opportunities for abuse are infinite. He has even worked with entities involved in preventing trafficking, and Vicente says that drugs are flooding into the country from South America and the Middle East facilitated by administrators and enforcement individuals who are on the take.
In 2000, Vicente returned to Santa Fe and earned a degree in mechanical technology from Santa Fe Community College. Here he connected with the programs at St. Elizabeth and made the commitment to stay in recovery. The work never ends, and he meets daily for a 12-step program, prays, meditates, reads spiritual materials, works out three or four times a week, and tries to eat healthily, although his Food Stamps benefits are dropping to $12 a week. His mother sometimes visits from northern New Mexico and brings him homemade food.
Vicente’s lifestyle has changed. “It’s not about me anymore,” he says, and instead of always taking he tries to give back. He has lived in his apartment for one year and works as a lifeguard, swimming teacher, and musician performing with other musicians in recovery or who have never used drugs. Music became a hobby early on, and he plays the base guitar with various groups. Spanish, Country, Delta Blues, Motown, R&B, he does it all, although he especially likes R&B. He named several places he appears in Santa Fe, and I hope to go hear him someday.
When you meet Vicente, his intelligence and dignity seem profoundly at odds with the life he has lived, and it is a sobering reminder of the danger of that very first “Let’s get high” moment. He says that heroin produces a kind of euphoria that you never forget. As he talked about it, I could sense the memory like a perpetual invitation, just on the other side of the door.
In the case of both Joana and Vicente, their lives have been very large in a certain respect, involving a lot of movement, drama, and challenges, large individual potential standing shoulder to shoulder with the hazards and the vulnerabilities that cause downfall. Most impressive of all is the state of recovery in both. How ironic that in that effort one sometimes sees more character than might otherwise be known.
They are also both in a place that reminds me of the quote with which I began: “Wealth consists not in having possessions but in having few wants.” A very interesting idea to consider as Thanksgiving approaches.