written by: the ever-wonderful Kevin Ji
“Is there a freedom to having no assets?” The question was posed to me by a friend and long-time Member of CEF on a Friday afternoon last year during one of our weekly writing workshops. It has been posed before (thanks, Ralph Waldo and Henry David) but at that moment, I found myself fully embracing – and personally grappling with – its sentiment.
On its surface, the question exposes materialism and its rampant presence in today’s culture. This is nothing novel and we are all guilty of it. I love shopping, especially at Ross and Old Navy. In a few weeks, I will be a proud iPhone owner, with the words ‘it was a birthday present’ serving as the (weak) justification for my compliance with the purchase of a device that will surely enslave me in many ways. In particular, I am already immensely looking forward to Snapchat, Plants vs. Zombies, and to further exploring what absolute dependency on Gmail might look like. Not great.
At its core, however, the question suggests something deeper. Assets are more than just money and possessions; they are things, both tangible and intangible, that we hold close, assigning value to them and deriving value from them. For some, this is prestige, voice, or influence. For many others, it is the stable job, secure home, or supportive family that we so often take for granted. They are things we strive to build and maintain; by admitting their value, we in turn give them the power to define us.
To distinguish us.
To disjoin us.
At the monthly HOPE Community Dinner earlier this month, I shook hands with a twenty-two year old man preparing to spend his first night at the IFC Shelter. To me he looked much older; my own twenty-second birthday is only a few weeks away. Before even mentioning his name or where he was from, he prefaced his greeting saying, “I swear I’m not a bad person, I’m just going through a hard time.”
A number of things went through my head upon hearing this: a compulsion to tell him he had nothing to apologize for, a pang that he had perceived me as someone who might cast judgment on him, and an overwhelming frustration that he felt the need to justify his ‘goodness’ as a person simply due his personal circumstances and those of our encounter.
Does this interaction suggest that we as a society have successfully marginalized homelessness? What about being poor? In many ways, measures of wealth and status have become so central in defining success and what we strive for that we forget other obvious alternatives: happiness, morality, balance, humility – the list goes on (Lao Tse, I’m looking at you). By so closely linking money and success, we fool ourselves into a mode of deficit thinking that has come to falsely and narrowly characterize poverty in this country.
What we don’t talk about enough are the consequences of this characterization, and what it truly means to define a rather large group of Americans (roughly 1 out of 6 of us) primarily by an absence of wealth and income. It certainly isn’t healthy. The story of poverty in this country has always been one of deficiencies: of money, literally, but also of capability and self-sufficiency. We offer charity and develop welfare programs, championing ourselves as providers and calling people free-riders when nothing comes back the other way. We tell the same story over and over again, in our schools, our media, and amongst one another, yet funnily enough never give ourselves the chance to meet any of the characters or to the hear their version of the tale. It’s quite different.
Strength and resilience, gratitude and appreciation, groundedness and perspective, camaraderie and community – these are words that aren’t used often enough. They are not meant to glorify or to diminish, but to give fair and due representation to a group that is too often defined by its deficiencies and hardly ever by its assets. We are all rich in some ways, poor in others. Let’s embrace that notion, and in doing so become more creative in how we perceive wealth, define assets, and pursue success in this country.
And CEF has done just that: what began as a monetary fund to help Members work toward and enjoy the same assets that many of us take for granted has turned into so much more. It is an intellectual fund where students grabbed by traditional teachings and pursuits can borrow from the wisdom and perspective of Members (in exchange for the use of their laptops), a social fund whose loan products range from crisis support to lifelong friendship (scary low interest rates, too), and an emotional fund from which any and all may borrow hope, optimism, and love, so long as they promise to reinvest it.
These two stories come from a pool of many that have accumulated over my past two years with CEF, and join the countless more that take place each day around the globe. They are moments of connection in a disparate world, perspective in a muddled one, and humanity in a, well, human one. They are reasons to stop and question, to listen and learn, to live and refine.
In life, look for the unlikeliest of friends and teachers – you probably have the most to learn from them anyway. Look them in the eye and understand where they come from. Share something about yourself too and reciprocate; there’s a reason why one-way streets suck, and I’m not just talking about traffic. Iterate, and in doing so spread the love.
As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Baller quote alert.) Underlying this thought, however, is another reality, that this garment is comprised of large and often isolated patches of color. They are patches of homogeneity, a result of the gravity that pulls together our social circles and guides our interactions. They are easy, natural, and comfortable – all things we love.
Imagine a garment, however, where these patches weave and intersect. Zoom in and see individual threads of colors interwoven with one another; zoom out and see the patterns that make it beautiful. I never really tell anyone to do anything, but I’ll tell you this now. Knit patterns for yourself and those around you. In doing so, challenge the status quo and defy gravity.