The Luxury of Being Poor

    AT first thought you would say that the luxury of being poor, like the luxury of going barefoot, is only a luxury of going barefoot, is only a luxury when it is not a necessity. But that statement is too epigrammatic for the sober truth. And truth is a goddess whose beauty best appears in diaphanous simplicity, without the oriental broideries of the too curious and too civilized mind. It is nearer the truth to say that as there is always an actual luxury in going barefoot, so there always is an actual luxury in being poor. If we do not always relish being poor, it is because we do not appreciate our blessings.
    I am sorry for any one who cannot afford to be poor. Certainly to enjoy the luxury to the fullest extent one must be a gentleman or [Page 175] a genius. But even without either of these advantages there is cause for thanksgiving in a modest amount of poverty. If you are poor, think of the endless burden of impediments of all sorts you escape from day to day, – houses, servants, tailors, teas, – a thousand cares and annoyances which press upon the rich and crush them back into the fat clay from which they came. There are rich people who are good, and there are rich people who are happy, but they are so at how great a cost! It is the old story of the savage over again. “Why don’t you work?” “What for?” “So that you may be rich.” “Why should I wish to be rich?” “So that you need do nothing.” “But I do nothing now.”
    If you are rich you cannot be free. You have obligations you cannot shirk. But the greatest freedom of the poor is the freedom of spirit. If I am poor, I am not obliged to be always on parade, always living at a tension, always presenting an appearance. My outward circumstance is so insignificant that [Page 176] I can forget it altogether and occupy my mind with the higher life. That is why it is good for a philosopher to be poor, – he has nothing to divert him from his noblest self. He may have the luxury of a free and untrammelled life. Voluntary poverty, such as that of the ecclesiastical orders, is a great positive virtue and a means of happiness. The mere act of renunciation in itself is no virtue. If you forego the pleasure of a new gown, and still keep hankering after it, that is no virtue, and does you little good. But if you abstain from buying it, saying to yourself, “Thank heaven, I am free from one more encumbrance,” you are already on the road to the Celestial City.
    In order to have the goods of this world you must be strenuous, unsleeping, given to hard work. You must will and energize day in and day out. You must impose your way on others, and bend them to your purpose. You must strive and never rest. (Unless, of course, you are dishonest, and make your [Page 177] money instead of earning it.) And for most people who are cast into the world with responsibility already upon them, such a life of endeavour is necessary. Others may be depending upon them, – the aged, the helpless, the unfortunate. They cannot shun the demands of humanity. They dare not indulge their own love of freedom. They cannot afford to be poor.
    But if no one worked, we should have few of the decencies of life, our climate being what it is. Yes, I know that. I am not championing any fundamental philosophy. I am only insisting that we do not appreciate the luxury of freedom there is in poverty.
    Cease to worry. Do not try to reason yourself into submission. Just dismiss your will entirely. Let it go out and play. Forget it. Then you may truly begin to live the greater life. Your own inner truer personality will have time and space to grow. You will breathe more freely and feel yourself a part of larger life. If poverty only makes us [Page 178] strive the harder (not work, but strive) then it is a curse and not a blessing. But that depends on our own mind. To be able to enjoy this beautiful earth and our strange, rich, wonderful life, it is necessary to be free, to keep a spirit untrammelled by outward things and untarnished by error. To be soured by poverty or to be hardened by it is a mistake, an error of thought. Instead of enjoying our life, we are cramping ourselves. It is just as if we were set at a feast and sulkily refused to enjoy a few dishes because we could not reach everything on the table and make ourselves sick, like foolish children that we are.
    Children do not mind poverty. It is not until they grow and cultivate their wilful individuality, that unhappiness and discontent overtake them. It is in their disregard of circumstance that we still may imitate them. They enjoy being barefoot and having nothing, until some mistaken grown-up makes them ashamed of it [Page 179].
    O artist, know that unless you can afford to be poor, you can never reach the full height of your power. You can never abandon strife, and insistence, and your own small worldly will. You can never be merged into the greater sweep of being whence inspiration flows.
    Do you tell me that competition and struggle are necessary to make you produce your best? If that is the mainspring of your art, is your art all it might be? Are you not merely an artisan? If you were an artist, you would sit down in supreme contentment and rags, painting for the joy of it alone. If you could afford never to sell a picture your work would be ten times as good as it is, and it would grow better every year. The brooding soul ripens; the anxious mind withers and blights. It is not good for you to live richly in cities, because it is hard to deny yourself. You must first be poor and lonely and dejected; then you must think of the luxury of your freedom; so you will enter into possession [Page 180] of yourself; and you will be glad and free and creative and strong. There is no other gladness; there is no other freedom; there is no other greatness [Page 181].