My wife and I have a peripatetic, sometimes luxurious life. As a rural general practitioner, my income is a little over half of what I’d make working full-time in the city, but I have a lot of independence and freedom. Working in remote places is my choice, for the people I care for. Claudia and I travel widely on breaks from the desert, including for training and networking. We are privileged people by world standards.
An important aspect of our wealth is the contrast we experience between the hardship and beauty of life in the desert and the concrete austerity and material abundance—five-star hotels, supermarkets—of the cities we travel through.
Being wealthy doesn’t mean having a three-thousand dollar handbag. I’m reclaiming the word. Here are ten things I consider indicators of being truly, sumptuously wealthy:
1. Unstructured time. Nowhere to be, nothing you have to do—a moment of bliss. Let go of the urge to fill it with productivity or distraction. Being able to see the sunrise and sunset, or stay up past midnight and sleep til midday if you desire it, this is a sure sign of wealth.
Harried people live as if they’re subject to a perpetual time and motion study, berating themselves for lack of efficiency even when they are not under surveillance by a boss or government.
But sometimes love rather than hunger pushes you. Responsibilities might wake you to another’s needs and schedule.
It’s a sweet moment as a parent of young children watches a tree shift in the wind, when the children are absorbed in play. Nature sustains the carers.
Time to make your life meaningful by seeing it reflected in a story—around a television or its more abstract ancestor, a fire—nourishes the spirit.
This kind of prosperity is closely related to:
2. Work that makes you happy—or at least, satisfied—and strong. If you haven’t got meaningful work, wealth lies in having the attitude and resilience to enjoy it anyway. If there’s an aspect of your work that means you can go there without resentment, that’s more precious than a black opal.
Having holidays off is an enriching privilege, too. If you work in retail, hospitality, health or the emergency services you know what I mean. Christian holidays are testing times for retail workers slogging it out with agitated consumers shopping madly. Even if you’re paid well to work on a Sunday, the feeling that you’re missing out never quite leaves you.
If you are one of the fortunate people who have evenings and weekends off—relish it.
An important facet of a rich working life is also:
3. Comfortable travel. Being able to walk, paddle or cycle to work is a source of joy in life.
In Autumn, 1986 I was in Hanoi, North Viet Nam. I listened in astonishment at the morning rush hour. Crowds of colourfully dressed people, rain-coated and huddling in drizzle, hurried to work. The only sound on city streets was the swoosh of bicycle tyres on the wet leaf-scattered road, the trill of bells and calling, arcing voices.
My family and I, travelling with a single change of clothes each in our bags, were wealthy by world standards even then. When we left Hanoi for Huế, we flew from the North to Central Viet Nam. The dual propeller plane carried passengers dressed in high quality clothing from the French era. It was like stepping into an Agatha Christie novel (but no one was murdered). People just looked through us in our chain-store clothes, too refined (or worldly) to be disdainful.
For me, in this century, comfortable air travel means Business Class, where the airline advertisements approach reality. Delicious food and staff caring for your comfort are palpable, unlike economy, where the harried flight attendants main job sometimes seems to be to keep people alive and stop them from killing each other in a confined space. A bit like working in a hospital, really.
Business class fares are ridiculous, Claudia and I use points or shop for specials. Business is the way to go for flights of five hours or more—which is a lot of flights within or from Australia. Economy class serves the airline’s economy. It’s a test of physical endurance.
In some ways, economy flights are getting better. Movies and e-books are a better way to pass time than huddling with a novel, shoulders in your ears, trying to catch the light on your page for fourteen hours. But in other ways it’s getting worse. Seats keep getting smaller and you’re not allowed to sleep on the floor anymore. Seats on planes should be all business class standard.
The ‘hard seat’ class in Indian and Chinese trains should probably go the way of history, too. At least there it’s socially acceptable to put your head on a stranger’s shoulder (if you’re a man). In India some long distance trains have separate Ladies Compartments where women can enjoy the same physical freedom. Don’t take the top bunk unless the fans are working, though. Speaking of personal space:
4. More than two rooms to live in, including a bathroom, and internal, closable doors. Mental health improves when humans have a little privacy. For Claudia and me, being able to use a different table for meals, so that you don’t have to pack up computers, craft tools and papers to eat together is something we appreciate. Having a house or living in a temperate place where you don’t need to consume power constantly to be comfortable is a boon, too.
Speaking of where you stay:
5. Delicious water to drink and its close ally, water that feels good on your skin. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s fresh water of the world comes from underground stores, with one and a half billion people depending on aquifers for their drinking water.
Many aquifers are at risk. In Britain, frackable oil and gas is almost all beneath aquifers, risking contamination of the groundwater.
In the Pacific and Indian oceans, fresh water lenses beneath the atolls are depleted by colonisation and tourism. Rainfall is becoming less dependable because of climate change.
I got word yesterday that the water supply at Tjuntjuntjara, where Claudia and I stay and work, is rationed and at risk because of inadequate infrastructure, again.
If you have the chance to catch and drink clean rainwater, or your local spring is still pure, you are rich indeed.
Rainfall and regular, dependable seasons are intimately related to:
6. Food that’s made from the ground up. Locally grown produce—affordable and abundant—is a blessing. In Mexico last December, Claudia and I lived healthily and cheaply on dinners from street food stalls. Vendors brought to market the specialty of their garden or district—cooked with locally-sourced spices and oils. During the festival of the Day of the Dead tamales were on the menu—including one I ate containing iguana meat and fresh herbs. Local chicken was also delicious.
Today, I’m writing from the south island of New Zealand. Later, I’m going to a Farmer’s Market. Such a colourful, fragrant meeting of producers and buyers has been part of human culture for over ten millennia.
My first exploratory trips alone, as a thirteen-year-old, were to the markets in Sydney, taking the train to spend the day exploring. I saw new vegetables, exotic fruits, smelled incense for the first time.
As I’ve grown and explored abroad, I’ve never been to many of the tourist sights of places I’ve been. I’ve been to India perhaps five times, but never seen the Taj Mahal. I never had the patience or the money to go—and I always knew I’d be back. But memories of markets never left me. Recalling the handful of spices and peppers stirred into my five-rupee dahl on my first trip to India in 1982 still makes my eyes water.
In China in 1992 the scents and colours of pyramids of tobacco—gold, chocolate and orange—gave me a different view of the substance.
Everywhere I travel, though, I see people eating factory-produced food-like substances: refined biscuits, pies and breads of never-decaying flour and mysterious chemical content, stimulants dissolved in drinks with large doses of sugar, instant noodles with tasty MSG. These pseudo-foods, like ready-made cigarettes, consume rather than provide nutrients and never satisfy.
If you’re able to source food that was grown in good soil, like mushrooms and berries in the forest in Germany, or food that grows abundantly to be hunted or gathered, like fresh kangaroo meat or mangata fruit in the Western Australian desert, or you get to eat seafood dragged from the briny that day or cheeses aged in a cave—then you are wealthy.
This kind of providence also encompasses:
7. Access to the natural world. A window with an outlook onto something other than a wall is invaluable in life.
Claudia and I watched a huge red moon rise over the ocean last night. Affinity with nature, feeling you have a place in the world, and an understanding that our bodies are subject to the pull of the moon and the waxing and waning of the seasons; all these make you richer. Feeling connected to our planet makes your spirit strong.
When you’re not so strong or well, another indicator of your opulence is:
8. A choice of medicines. In the OECD countries, being well enough and rich enough to access gentle alternative ways of healing—massage, herbs, holidays—and have them work for you, is a sign of wealth.
In other countries having access to suitable medicine from higher income countries (and to someone with the knowledge to correctly prescribe it for you) is a marker of plenitude.
In a Pacific Ocean nation where I worked five years ago, the hospital had only one kind of antibiotic for a population of about six thousand people. Antibiotic-resistant bugs grew for years in wounds on the bodies of people eating tasty, imported foods who no longer had the energy to tend crops or fish.
‘Did your grandparents get these skin diseases?’ I said. ’No. Because they ate paw paw and fish and home-made coconut oil.’
A patient had described to me how she still made coconut oil herself, as her parents did.
An unbroken healing tradition embracing the food and herbs you eat, the thoughts you think, your emotions and the environment you live in can be a source of health and, consequently, abundance.
Humanity will need these resources—medicines still not widely known in the forest, the mountains, the sea and the desert—if or when the stupendous lifesavers of last century, antibiotics and disinfectants—stop working. We need these ways of healing already, alongside modern medicines, to prevent and recover from non-infectious diseases, like heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and diabetes. Non-communicable diseases cause almost seventy percent of deaths in the world now.
We need to focus on what keeps us well. Which means that one of the most important sources of true wealth is:
9. Someone who cares for you. Someone to make you a cup of tea or remind you to put a jumper on. Someone who notices when you’re hurt or angry, who get a twinkle in her eye when you laugh.
I’m blessed with a wife who is the love of my life. But the one who cares for you might be not be your lover. They might not even be human. Some people love their animals better than people. Some people feel nurtured by a plant, like the blue creatures in Avatar, sustained by their sacred trees.
Being wealthy is not only about what money can buy.
I’ve known super-rich people who no longer had anyone they could relate to in ways that were not mediated by money and the fear of losing it. Relationships with peers were scarred by competition and deceit. They paid people, like me, to be their confidantes. They told their worries and expressed their obsessions to maids, hairdressers, gardeners and masseuses. Because we were being paid to listen, of course these friendships were one-sided.
They missed that element of true friendship when your mate tells you that you’re being an idiot. If you’re ever fabulously wealthy, this is a developmental handicap to look out for.
Lastly, I wish for you a material, space-consuming source and epitome of affluence:
10. A shelf of books. Could be on a Kindle, but material books and the space to enjoy them remain a fount of mind-expanding wisdom and delight.
My paper books are currently stored in boxes in a shipping container. Setting up bookshelves has been and will be a delight whenever we are settled again in a big enough house.
Literacy is a great source and marker of intellectual and spiritual wealth.
Functional illiteracy—being unable to read and fill out a form or read a medicine bottle—is a huge question in Australia. Almost half of the population is functionally illiterate.
Books and texts are companions, friends, naggers and teachers.
Books have enriched my life since babyhood. When I was three years old, my favourite book was probably The Adventures of Little Black Sambo--the 1961 edition. It featured an Indian boy with nice clothes and a bright red umbrella.
I loved the book’s ending, when the tigers—which had stolen Little Sambo’s clothes and, outrageously, his dear umbrella—were turned to butter and Sambo got his things back.
Another book featured cheeky fairies climbing on rose thorns. I looked for them on the rose bushes in a neighbour’s garden and quickly learned about thorns. I can still remember my fascination with the congruence between the shape of the drawn thorns and flowers and the real things. I remember bleeding, too, affronted by the pricks.
Books continue to enrich my life. Last month, Claudia and I were in Fremantle, south of Perth in Western Australia, where I attended a conference. On a sunset walk along a stony breakwater we admired the boats and saw fish in the clear cyan water.
Around a curve was a damaged shopping trolley. It was full of the worldly possessions of the house-less person who had been sheltering there.
I learned to say ‘house-less’ from the Native Hawaiian health workers, who say that a person always has a home in the world, even when they have no house.
The goods in the trolley looked like a collection of rags and rubbish. I guess there’s no point keeping really good things there. People would steal them.
Tucked into the trolley, visible through the wire, was a novel—bookmark in place. I imagined this house-less person reading a book when they settled down for the night between the breakwaters blocks of unyielding stone.
I’ve always been for a fairer distribution of wealth in the world. Perhaps some of that depends on how you see it. Looking at that desire through the lens of these kinds of prosperity encourages me. Maybe there’s more wealth around than we know.
Tonight we’ll have a feast of lovingly grown and prepared produce to make dinner after an afternoon with good friends and some hours of meaningful work. It’s a rich life.
See you in Business Class.
Gold coins in thumbnail image are chocolates. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.