Peaceful Poverty – By ROBERT LYND

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 23, 1948

Peaceful Poverty

In a world in which so many people want more and more money it is a pleasant change to hear of a married couple in Huntington, West Virginia, who want less.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack L. Adams, of that town, we are told, recently took part in a wireless quiz contest and unexpectedly won a prize of $7,300.

Most of us would have jumped at the chance of possessing such a sum, but Mr. and Mrs. Adams did all they could not to accept it. Not that they felt unworthy, but, according to a correspondent, “almost from the moment the award was announced they were harried night and day by people who wanted to sell them something or asked for gifts or loans. It did not take them long to decide that the peace was cheap at $7,300.”

Many people—perhaps most people—called on to choose between peace and dollars would have chosen the dollars. Money has a curious hypnotic charm that is very difficult to fight against and only a person of strong character could refuse it on the ground that it is better to be comparatively poor and happy than to be comparatively rich and miserable.

This, however, the Adamses did. Unable to eat, sleep or work, because of telephone calls, Mrs. Adams went to the root of the matter with the question “What good will it do us if we are hounded to death?”

And it was only when the mayor of Huntington pointed out that she and her husband were morally bound to accept the money and they consented with a groan.

In these days of football pool prizes and sweepstakes I have sometimes had a nightmare in which I had won one of the big prizes and as a result, found myself besieged by a cloud of locusts on the telephone, another cloud of locusts approaching me from all quarters by letter, and yet a third cloud of locusts gathering on my doorstep, all clamoring for money and refusing to cease persecuting me till they had been given some.

Appalled by the prospect, I have said to myself, “Better be a missionary attacked by a horde of cannibals”; and, when the prizes were announced and I had failed as usual to get one, I have heaved a sigh of relief and felt how sweet it was to be able to draw breath freely as only an unmoneyed man can do.

Sometimes, in my winning dream, I have dreamt of flying the country with my prize; but in these days one is allowed to fly the country with only about thirty or forty pounds. Alternatively I have thought of committing some purely technical crime that would land me in gaol for twelve months or so. There are, I believe, no telephones in the cells in Wormwood Scrubs, and beggars are not admitted nor are their letters delivered.

To refuse the money altogether, however, would, I am afraid, be beyond me. After all, one has a duty to oneself, to say nothing of one’s family. I could always change my name and grow a beard and go and live in a remote village and do good—give the prizes to the village sports and that sort of thing.

I have heard of one little man in an Irish village who once won a prize in a great sweepstake and who bought a motorcar which he lends to anybody who wants to go anywhere. Every night he goes into the local inn, looks round the company, says, “The drinks are on me,” and sits silent for the rest of the evening, content to watch the shining faces of those whom his riches have made happier. There are no beggars in his little world, but only beneficiaries; and he is universally known and loved by the name of the horse he drew in the sweep, Firdausi. Not a miserable life, surely.

I once met a rich woman who said she would always feel a slave till she had got rid of her property; but I cannot help thinking that, if I had some property, I should feel less its slave than its master.

As a philosopher, of course, I despise money; but I am a philosopher only for a few minutes a day. During these few minutes I agree with Epictetus that, if a thief steals your silver lamp you should be sorry not for yourself but for the thief, because it is a much more terrible thing to be a thief than to be robbed.

Offer me a sweepstake ticket, however, and I forget all about Epictetus and his contempt of property. Instead, I see in the distance a dawn in which the sun rises like a gold sovereign on a world of gold—or, at least, of valuable papers—a large amount of which belongs to me.

Should I be immoral enough to refuse it simply because it would cause me a lot of bother in the shape of telephone calls and begging letters? Not if I am half the man I think I am.

I have come through worse worries than the worry of being rich; and anyhow income-tax and surtax are so high nowadays that there are hardly any riches to worry about. All one has to do is to sign a cheque at regular intervals making over most of one’s riches to the state; and who minds signing a cheque?

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