How strange it is to be anything at all.”
-from “In an airplane over the sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel
The day I stop being astonished by my own aliveness might be a good day to die. It’s my great fortune and my only grace that such a day has not yet come. Good air rushes in through my nose and hugs my lungs, oxygen melting into my beating blood and warmly flowing everywhere, leaving no piece of flesh untouched. My body is a lively forest, an intricate, densely populated world. Each of my cells whir and hum in their quiet watery way, knit tightly with trillions of other cells, each miraculously complete and simultaneously a part of a greater whole. Like the cells, I whir and hum, jump and flow, open and close, stretch and breathe. Some fire makes it all crackle, some gravity holds it all together. Some mystery keeps this body alive. If I didn’t know what a body was, I don’t know that I’d have the creativity to imagine it. In its intricacy and enigma, its completeness and its vulnerability, it exceeds by far anything that I could dream.
Even on my most devastating days, when earth looks warm enough to sleep in forever or when fire seems a merciful ashy alternative to despair, there comes at least one moment when grace flashes like lightning into my hours. Every day, there is always a moment, at least one sudden, ecstatic moment when a simple exclamation rings clear in my mind like a bell:
Yes, emphatically yes! – “how strange it is to be anything at all.”
If it is strange (lucky, mysterious, miraculous) to be alive at all, how much more strange (rare, uncommon, exceptional) it is to be alive and wealthy. The richest top 10% of adults in the world own about 85% of the world’s wealth. One would need total assets (disposable income, land, housing, durables, savings, etc.) of at least $61,000 (USD) to be a member of this Top 10%. The average member of this richest 10% has 3,000 times more wealth than an average member of the poorest 10% of the world. Members of this poorest 10%, who often teeter on the edge of survival for want of basic necessities, love their lives, I imagine, much as I love mine. I imagine them breathing as I breathe. I imagine them finding, even on their most devastating days, grace, gratitude and astonishment in their everyday moments.
One would need to have a “net worth” of at least $500,000 to be a member of the richest 1% of people in the world. Members of the 1% club would have on average about 13,000 times the wealth of the average member of the bottom 10%. Wealth disparity is often justified in mainstream U.S. culture as a “natural” consequence of “natural” differences in intelligence, talent and work ethic between people. But what person is 13,000 times more intelligent or talented than another? Who could possibly work 13,000 times harder than another human being? Is anyone 13,000 times more deserving? Certainly no one is 13,000 times more miraculous.
It’s a disconcerting, bewildering mathematics. I do this math not out of a love of numbers, but out of a love of people. These numbers tell one of many stories that help me understand my place in the world and my relationships to other people.
Money has been a part of structuring my relationships from a very young age. My first memory of money is of being four years old in New Delhi, and weaving through a plaza of thin, dusty men repairing shoes—old men with stumps for legs who walked masterfully on their hands, young men with arms missing or misshapen, boys with skinny bodies and muscular, tenacious voices. They sat in rows with their small metal tools in front of them.
“Ma, please give me something.”
“I’ll fix your shoes. Just a few rupees.”
There were so many of them. At the time, I couldn’t count that high.
My grandmother handed me a silver coin to give to one of the shoemakers. I watched it fall into a callous, outstretched palm, then hurried away as fast as I could without tripping over sharp tools and missing limbs. Behind me came the voices of others, asking for money with greater power and determination than ever.
I wanted to leave the place quickly. I was on my way to school. I had a pretty yellow dress, and hair done in careful pigtails. I felt delectable, good enough to eat, good enough for anything.
But by the end of the school day, I was usually spent. There were crayons and singsong, teachers who scowled at me and rapped my fingers with rulers, mean girls who tugged my pigtails and called me “Fatty”.
At bedtime, I would argue with my grandmother.
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow!”
“Do you want a bedtime story?” she warned.
She knew my weaknesses: sweet milk and bedtime stories. Annoyed and defeated, I would sulk in silence for a few minutes, then nod my head almost imperceptibly, still frowning.
“Good. Do you promise you’ll go to school?”
A minute would pass. “Promise,” I would say in a soft, grumpy mumble.
“Make sure you keep your promise,” she admonished gravely. “Promise-breaker: shoemaker.”
This is my first remembered experience of money. It seemed to define my place in the world as the giver of money and not the receiver. As the bright-faced child in a pretty dress on her way to school. As the one protected and blessed, moving through crowds of thin, dusty people. As a student who is always just one broken promise from being a shoemaker. In short, as someone who is part of the professional middle-class—kept high above the “lower classes” by a tightrope of conventional morality and institutionalized education. How strange it is to be a student and not a shoemaker. And how precarious—how oddly, mythically dependent upon my ability to keep promises and to go to school.
Around this age, my grandmother also taught me about reincarnation—how living beings are souls who wake up in bodies somewhere in the universe as mosquitoes or mice, mushrooms or demigods, students or shoemakers. Everybody I saw, I would think, “Maybe that was me once.” I’ve kept and cultivated this feeling of precariousness throughout my life. I know that it’s chancy out there. I don’t know how many beings I’ve already been. I don’t know what miracle of a body I might inhabit next.
Those bedtime stories I bartered with my grandmother set me up to become a fast reader. I was the first kid to read in my kindergarten class. It was then that I was labeled “gifted”. And, in fact, I was gifted, in the sense that my grandmother gave me the gift of her time and energy to read to me every day. I was gifted to have books, time, attention, and education. If I was gifted, the gifts came from somewhere and from somebody, but the psychologists who tested me and asked me questions behind closed doors didn’t seem interested in where the gifts came from, only in whether or not I had them. I passed all of their tests, I guess, because I was accelerated a grade.
I walked to elementary school every day from the trailer my family lived in in a mixed working- and middle-class neighborhood in the Northwest Territories of Canada. My parents immigrated from India to Canada and worked as architects for the territorial government on designing public projects like schools, hospitals, street design. We moved many times in my life, from apartment, to trailer, to townhome, to a large single-family home, and finally to my parents’ “dream home”, which they designed themselves. The changing houses mirrored my parents’ steady rise in seniority through various government jobs, and was concurrent with my own upward mobility through school, going from one “high achievers” class to the next, collecting “leadership experiences” and “enrichment opportunities” voraciously along the way. By age 15, I was quite the fast-talking wheeler-dealer, armed with a sparkling resume and glowing references to sell anyone on the idea that I had great “leadership potential” and would “make a difference” in the world.
How strange it is to be “exceptional”. This goes without saying—“exceptional” is one of the very meanings of the word “strange”. I mean strangely unnerving, disconcerting. I loved being “special”, even though I knew it divided me from others, even though it fueled competition and fanned destructive jealousies, even though it made my confidence brittle and thin—a teacup on a roller-coaster, sometimes high, sometimes low, always on the verge of breaking. Though I attended mixed-race, mixed-class Canadian public schools my entire life, my closest friends were other solidly professional middle-class overachievers who also had strong attachments to being “special”—that is, to gaining the approval and support of authority figures, excelling in mainstream institutional academics, and “being leaders” in clubs, student governments, and community groups. I was in high school before I finally figured out that I was not alone—that, ironically, I was part of a class of people who felt exceptional!
The professional middle class seems to me to be just that—a class of people who feel exceptional. We often see ourselves as part of an educated elite that is more skilled, talented, creative, and intelligent than the majority. We’re not just special—we’re specialists. We aspire not for “jobs” but for “careers”: long years of increasingly specialized training, networking, and status-building that peaks to a climactic “lifetime achievement” around middle-age, followed by what is hoped to be a decades-long, comfortable retirement. And we strive to achieve it all by “the sweat of our brows”—or rather, by the brilliance of our brilliant minds, our irreplaceable talents, our painstakingly cultivated expertise, our unique and visionary leadership.
Many people who identify as out of the mainstream, and/or radical, and/or revolutionaries may scoff at such ambitions and assumptions – this white-bread, homogeneous script, this tired normalcy. A good number of us grew up professional middle class and are “recovering” from the experience—often by denying class privilege at all. In my experience, however, class attachments die hard. As suspicious as many radicals who have grown up professional middle-class may be about late capitalism, many of us still believe that the jobs (and sometimes careers) we hold in the capitalist system will still promise us security, fulfillment, and the chance to make a positive difference in the world. We may feel that though capitalism exploits and disenfranchises the “poor” and the working class, that we as professionals can still be fulfilled by well-paying, interesting, and meaningful paid work under capitalism. As a result, we may maintain strong attachments to paid work, feeling it to be a particularly important source of self-worth and fulfillment. We can conflate our status within institutions with our status as people. And often, the more we feel our paid jobs give us, the more we fear we have to lose.
As academics, artists, teachers, professional non-profit workers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, consultants, and more, we aim to use our institutional education, skills, and privileges for “good and not evil.” We seek out and pursue careers where we can be creative, and “do good work” through our paid jobs. And we do do important, meaningful work through these jobs, and do our best to push boundaries and bring about social and institutional change through the various institutions where we are paid to work. That said, I don’t think that the for-profit, non-profit, or government sectors will ever pay anybody to abolish private property, create local collective economies and decision-making bodies, or establish self-determining communities on land re-claimed from the State. Without this crucial work that demands a fundamental restructuring of the very institutions that create and perpetuate wealth disparity in the first place, wealth and meaningful work may be available for the few, but they will probably not be available for the many.
After years of searching for the perfect career, the career that helps me “reach my true potential” and “use my gifts”, the career that allows me to develop the specialized skills I need to be crowned an “expert professional” who deserves to be “taken seriously”, I’m slowly giving up on the professional middle-class career ladder. This is another way of saying that I’m giving up on capitalism to provide me with meaningful paid work to which I can bring my whole self. This doesn’t mean that my paid work doesn’t relate to the rest of my life, or that it doesn’t support me in certain ways. It’s just that I cannot count on it for my sense of self-worth, and I can’t use it as a proxy for projects that fundamentally challenge and undermine capitalism. I do what I need to do to survive under capitalism, and focus my energy on whether or not my paid work can sustain myself and my community in the unpaid, revolutionary and transformative work that we do together. The question that seems most crucial to me now is not, “How am I going to have meaningful paid work to which I can bring my whole self?” but rather “What is it going to take for all of us to have meaningful work to which we can bring our whole selves?”
True to my class upbringing, I’ve tended unconsciously to value my labor above the labor of others. As a professional middle-class person, I’ve always been given a disproportionate amount of status and praise for my talents and skills. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be given respect and admiration for what I can do—it means that everyone else deserves the same respect and admiration. Yes, I can write essays, talk pretty, and set up science experiments. I can also cook, clean, and do dishes. Some of my skills are valued more highly than others. But labor is labor is labor – everyone’s work is essential and honorable, and everyone’s work counts. The systematic perpetuation of “cheap labor” around the world is a lie based on the notion that some people’s time, creativity, and life energy are worth less than others. My attachment to having a certain type of “professional” work has been at least partially based on the idea that I have creativity and skills that should be respected and rewarded through status and money. Fair enough, but who doesn’t have creativity and skills, and how many people are emphatically not widely respected or rewarded nearly enough for their brilliance—garment makers, drug dealers, sex workers, farm workers, shoemakers? Giving up on capitalism means to me questioning the notion that I am somehow more entitled to a certain type of economic sustenance and social respectability than others. To put it more strongly, it calls into the question the idea that I am entitled meaningful paid work to which I can bring my whole self in a world where practically no one can find such work.
In a certain sense, it doesn’t matter what I do—it matters what we do together. For example, I could work in any capitalist institution—corporation, university, non-profit, etc.—and share my income with members of my community to sustain them as they do the radical, necessary work that no institution would fund them to do. In that case, if someone were to ask me, “So, what do you do?”, I could say, “I work at such-and-such institution,”—but in a sense, the question would be irrelevant. The question of “what I do” wouldn’t make sense without considering what it is that my work is making possible for others. I could say, “I do paid work at such-and-such institution and that sustains the radical collective work of which I’m a part.” That’s a more complete story, because it highlights what my work makes possible for all of us. I shift the focus from myself, my status, my employer, and the institution where I labor and turn the focus to my community, our shared projects, and the new institutions we’re making together.
Who will sustain us to do the work that no sector will fund us to do? We will have to sustain each other as we’ve always done—like family. I would say that most people in the world work in this way. When asked why they do the work that they do, I suspect that the answer most people give is, “To take care of myself and my family.” Though work can be a source of pride, joy, and meaning, many of these benefits come from the fact that our work makes it possible for our loved ones to survive. We could expand the conventionally narrow definition of family by creating economic arrangements where we take turns holding paid jobs to support one another in doing unpaid movement work. Instead of growing attached to our individual advancement in particular careers, we can turn our attention to discovering how to ethically share resources like land, food, and wealth amongst not just our blood kin, but our revolutionary family. These economic arrangements may make new things possible for future generations—who are, after all, our family, and should be taken seriously as such.
We each make choices as best we can—we buy certain things, we form certain relationships, we take on certain jobs. To what extent do we really “choose” our paid work under capitalism? We are all caught up in coercive systems that are beyond the control of any individual. This is part of why the term “liberation” resonates so deeply with folks with radical politics, because we are people who recognize coercion when we see it, and long for ways out. The term “collective liberation” rings even more deeply, because we’re not interested simply in the end of the coercive situations that we face as individuals, but we want an end to coercion for all, and we recognize fundamentally that in the long-run, the liberation of one is dependent upon the liberation of all. It doesn’t really matter whether we’re praised or blamed for our choices—that’s not where our attention need be focused. What matters is what becomes created through our choices. How do our choices help us survive and thrive under difficult conditions? How do they help others survive and thrive?
Every day, we face difficult questions about what “collective liberation” really means. These questions are exacerbated by the systematic dissolution of common resources. More and more often, I hear my friends expressing their fears of aging and of “not having enough” for retirement. These questions become intensified—more deeply felt and more painful—because every day the precariousness of the State and of the Market and their inability to sustain human beings is becoming more fully revealed. Social Security will not come through for us in our old age, even for those of us who—aided in part by our class privilege—have worked steadily in State-recognized institutions throughout our lives. Employers won’t support us. A great many of my professional middle-class friends and acquaintances are deeply fearful for their futures, and have reacted to this fear by putting money away for themselves for retirement. The question of how people will be cared for in old age makes vivid the complexities and realities of collective liberation. Are we in this together? What would it take to ensure that all of us were taken care of in our old age? What is made possible when each of us puts money away for ourselves? What is made possible when we own resources collectively? How does it feel to fight for universal elder-care when everyone’s lives (including your own) depends on it? How about when almost everyone’s lives—except for the minority of people of which you are a part—depends on it?
In Connaught Place, the old shoemakers slept under thin blankets on the pavement. What would it take to ensure that all of us were taken care of?
Growing up in North America, I’ve been heavily exposed throughout my life to a ubiquitous and incredibly powerful set of mythologies about the so-called Third World. As a descendant of immigrants from a so-called Third World country, I’ve been more attentive to these mythologies than most North Americans, and have experienced them as painful, violent, and misinformed. The Third World is constructed as a mythical place that is stunningly homogeneous, despite the fact that three-quarters of humanity lives there! The names and faces are different, but the underlying realities of Third World countries are presumed to be the same: the Third World is a poor, wretched place, full of poor, wretched people living poor, wretched lives.
“Wretched lives” are “base”, or “meaningless” lives, bare and akin to popular conceptions of animal life. American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory about human needs known as “Maslow’s pyramid”. He said that people can’t fulfill their “higher needs” (need for transcendence, beauty, self-esteem, love), unless their “lower needs” (need for food, shelter, physical safety) are met first. This idea is common and influential in mainstream U.S. culture, and is expressed in phrases like “just getting by”, “eking out a living”, “bare existence”, “mere survival”. These phrases all echo the sentiment of Maslow’s pyramid, which is that people whose lives are particularly precarious—that is, people who are particularly close to death by hunger, thirst, cold, disease, war, etc.—are unable to have meaningful creative, spiritual, and intellectual lives. The intelligence, talents, beauty, power, and leadership qualities of such survivors are constantly called into question. They are treated as silent, miserable masses, too weak and uneducated to be able to make decisions for themselves. They are “merely surviving”, meaning they don’t have the time or energy to devote to the “higher” pursuits that make life meaningful and worth living.
Let me be plain: everyone’s life is precarious. We are all very near death. At any moment we could dissolve or snap in two. What separates the “merely surviving” from the “flourishing and thriving” is the intensity with which one feels, experiences, and knows one’s precariousness and fragility. Starvation, homelessness, and perpetual violence bring human beings close to death, and to a particular kind of death—death by systematic social negligence. Someone has to be the “collateral damage” of a system that funnels resources to a few and away from the many—it might as well be Rajni or Raheem, or Bob or Bernadette. In a generous, abundant world that provides more than enough for all, these are preventable deaths that just weren’t prevented. Such deaths are conventionally framed as either regrettable but necessary (“it’s just the way things are”, “there’s not enough to go around, so someone has to be sacrificed”, “it’s human nature”), justly deserved (“the fittest survive”, “maladjusted and backward people don’t make it in the world”), or ungrievable (“they live miserable, meaningless lives”, “there’s too many of them anyways”). Those of us who are not as precariously perched on survival’s edge may conjure up such stories as consolations, perhaps to shield ourselves from grief. Ultimately, however, such stories betray a failure to take these lives seriously as lives—as real lives, full lives, livable lives, miraculous lives.
A deeply felt sense of the tenuousness of one’s own life certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility of a rich and meaningful spiritual, interpersonal, and intellectual life. “Mere survival” is never “mere”—survival is gorgeous, hard-won, and miraculous. To be alive at all is a sacred honor, and no small feat. And there’s nothing “mere” about the creative visions, talents, skills, knowledge, and wisdom that those on the edge of survival possess and enact through their days. These are precious lives that are emphatically “worth” living…but I think I’m tired of this game of assigning living a particular “worth”.
Yes, at any moment, we could dissolve or snap in two. I know this because it happens every day to so many, and for the oddest reasons: just because people didn’t have “enough”. Not enough of the food, the water, the air, the shelter, the land, or the simple peace that is necessary to continue surviving. These are common things, abundant in the world and abundant in my own life. I will never understand why so much faith has been invested in my worth—my “talents” and “expertise”, my “leadership skills”, my usefulness, my simple right to be—and yet so little of this faith has been invested in others. The question of whether or not I should live has never come up as a question. What determines whether we look at a person and see them as brilliant or as burdensome, as beauty or as blight? Bright-faced and blessed, I moved through crowds of thin, dusty people—but it could all have easily been otherwise, inverted, upside-down. Promisebreaker, shoemaker.
I see human lives as precarious in the immediate sense (we could die at any moment) and in the cosmic sense (we could have been born into any body and into any situation). In between those two time scales is a third kind of precariousness—the precariousness of our current social, political, and economic conditions. The economists tell us that the value of the U.S. dollar is falling rapidly. Some economists are forecasting that the value of the U.S. dollar will fall below that of the Chinese yuan relatively soon. What would happen if hundreds of dollars couldn’t buy a loaf of bread? That’s when, as Chief Seattle insinuated, we realize that we can’t eat money. Then what shall we eat, and how?
Our circumstances can change very quickly. It’s not just that those of us who are not “merely surviving” could have been among the “merely surviving”, it’s that we may yet in our lifetimes become among the “merely surviving”. If we took this realization seriously, we might work with even greater care, determination, imagination, and empathy to transform our societies into loving places that cherish the living very, very much.
In one sense, the question of “what is enough?” is a deeply personal question. In another sense, it is a properly social question. When Karl Marx wrote, “From each according to ability, to each according to need,” he also meant that the question of what constitutes a need is determined collectively, not simply individually. It would be one thing for each of us to look deeply into our hearts and wallets and decide how much we as individuals need—that is, how much we receive, how much we keep, how much we give away. It would be another thing for all 6.6 billion of us to commit to making sure that every person has what they need. In this case, what each of us keeps, gives, or receives would be decided through that collective commitment.
Making this commitment would be a decision. If we are each other’s people, this is not something that we will discover, but something that we will decide. We won’t necessarily “find out” through DNA testing or genealogical research or travel or even dialogue whether we are a people. We will decide that we are a people, and then make decisions accordingly to help one another live.
The Dalai Lama wrote something that astonishes me more and more the more that I think about it: “We inhabit the same universe because we share a common karma.” This implies that something essential to our development as beings requires us to inhabit this planet together. It means that, unfathomable as it may seem, every last one of us actually belongs here. It implies that we are not a random group of living creatures, but a particular group of creatures thrown together, and there is some clue hidden in our togetherness, some great riddle that will take the collective energies of every last one of us to solve.
We are the living – a motley crew, a tattered and tired bunch. How lovely we are, we miracles against entropy, withstanding gravity’s heavy pull and wear. How are we here, and how can we continue to be? What is it that keeps us alive? On one hand, this is an impossible question: who can explain aliveness? It’s a trickster that exceeds language, always bleeding over boundaries. Yet it can also be as simple as a children’s song: food, water, sleep, shelter, art, air, love, and time.
The beautiful thing is that there’s nothing better than the things that keep us alive– no joy comes close to the joy of having these things. There’s that good air again, greeting my nose. There’s that gracious feeling—the astonishment of feeling my breath and knowing my aliveness again for the first time. It doesn’t get better than this. Nothing brings more joy than what is shared, common, and free. It is always more than enough.