Henry Rollins, who I’ve previously mentioned as being an honorary Unlikely Radical, perhaps the one that I aspire to be like the most, once joked at a spoken word show about a fictitious performance art piece, one with the pretension level amped up to its highest level. In it he mused that he would:
“…pound all these symbols of our materialistic world into a flat, metal/glass/ concrete chunk. And that will be me destroying all material possessions and showing you that it’s much better to be a worthless poet.”
And then the punchline:
“And then we all go home, and I bum cab fare from you.”
I know I find lessons in unlikely places, but I see something in this offhanded comment.
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Speaking our truths for us
The role of the artist in society is multi-fold, and I’m not here to say what that role is or should be.
But the role of the artist as someone who speaks truth is pretty irrefutable. This is why I include good comedians such as Bill Hicks as artists, because they are not afraid to distill truths in a way that no “serious” person would be able to get away with.
At the same time, one problem with being a truth-telling artist is that you’re not usually valued, at least while you’re alive. (Sorry, Bill.)
I can’t change the system of cultural values and the pay associated with them. We pay a lot of money for jobs that don’t feel important (like tech), and we don’t pay a lot of money for jobs that do feel important (like teachers and caregivers). Maybe a shift to basic income will right this in some way.
The worthy poet
But if there’s any lesson that feels important to state here, it’s that there is no intrinsic glory in poverty. It is not something to aspire to, and there is nothing wrong in not aspiring to it.
There are some amazing lessons that come from not having means. A sense of appreciation is one of them. A meal you don’t get to experience all the time is much more satisfying than one that can happen whenever you want.
An understanding of the important is another. When you are hanging out lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you are more in touch with how the bottom of the pyramid is wider for a reason. Food, shelter, safety, all those things are more important, no matter vital self-actualization is. The more you’ve had to be concerned with about getting your needs met, the more you will be grateful for them when they are.
I’ve never been homeless, though I have slept in my share of bus and train stations. I’ve never gone unwillingly hungry, but I’ve been on trips where I would run out of money if I ate as much as I would want. I’ve never lived in a place that made me feel unsafe, but I have been near enough to the crossfire of a gun fight, and once was enough, thank you very much.
I have so much more means today than I had even a decade ago. I’m not wealthy by conventional measures, but I have strong reason to believe that I will be eventually.
Some argue that because these life lessons come to you through hardship, that it’s important to remain in hardship. “Money is the root of all evil” and all that.
I disagree. I believe that we can hold on to the lessons learned from hardship without holding on to the hardship.
And more to the point, the person of means, by whatever measure you choose, can do more (and larger) good than the person without means.
While I could take my mom to Europe, I wish I could take care of her more fully in her retirement. Why wouldn’t I want to? And why wouldn’t I want to take care of people I know and care about, if I could? Or even those I don’t know personally?
Even just paying a higher tax rate makes me feel good, knowing that I’m in some way contributing to our woefully underfunded safety net.
By all means, be a poet. Speak the truth. But by all means, don’t assume that you need to be poor.
And in the meantime, I’ve got your cab fare.