Kirsten Mustain

Standing amid the ruins of the economy

It is not news to anyone that our country is in the midst of an economic catastrophe.

Though I have listened to hours of commentary by people who know what they are talking about, I am not certain that I grasp the cause of the problem.

What I do see with absolute clarity, is that what my parents and I were taught in school about every American dollar representing a piece of the worth of the gold bars kept at Fort Knox was not actually the case. It might have been true at sometime in our illustrious past, but it wasn’t true when I was in school, and maybe not when my parents were in school either.

Apparently the value of my money is also not dependent upon how hard I work, since the worth of the dollars I am paid continues to decline while my workload continues to increase.

In this day and age money is apparently no more than an abstract idea - a matter of faith. I have faith that when I deposit my paycheck in my bank account, my bank will say that I have so many dollars, which will then be disbursed to my creditors who also have faith that my meager pay will make their accounts fatter when added to the meager pay of all the other people who owe more than their work is worth.

Meanwhile, a different kind of faith tells me that somehow I will still be able to eat even though a full time job will no longer buy my groceries.

Recreational shopping?  What’s that?

About ten years ago I had the privilege of traveling to India.

It is my personal belief that all Americans should be required to spend a month in the Third World. Nothing will make you love your country more or give you a more sobering view of reality on earth.

I will never forget the conversation I had with one of the people who was kind enough to show us around his country.

It began when my sister, my mother, and I expressed an interest in going shopping. In our quaint American way, we figured since we were traveling it would be fun to see what sorts of interesting purchases we could make at the local market.

Our guide did not speak the best English, but he smiled and said, “Yes. What do you need to buy?”

I shrugged.  “Nothing in particular. We just want to look around and see if there’s anything we want.”

He thought he had misunderstood. “Okay. Yes. What do you need to buy?”

“We don’t need anything. We just want to look.”

He was confused. “I can’t tell where to take you unless you tell me what you are needing.”

“Just to the market,” I said.

“But what are you needing?”

It wasn’t a matter of misunderstanding the language. It was a matter of having a completely different set of guiding assumptions.

The average Indian does not go to the market unless he or she needs something.

Modern Americans might be able to learn something from that. I know I did.

How many quarters does one person need?

Another incident in India really made me reconsider my American values.

My brother and I were talking with a boy of about ten or eleven one day.

The boy was telling us about his foreign money collection, which he carried in a small pouch.

He said he had two American coins, and he dumped his collection on the table to show us. He was particularly proud of his American quarter.

My brother happened to have several American coins he hadn’t exchanged for rupees. He produced a dime and a nickel and gave them to the boy, who grinned happily at his new acquisitions.

Then my brother found a quarter in his pocket.

“Here,” he said. “I have another quarter for your collection, too.”

The boy looked at him strangely. “But I already have one.”

“Yes,” my brother replied. “Now you have two.”

The boy furrowed his brows and frowned, “But I have one. I don’t need this one.”

He respectfully returned the quarter to my brother.

Of course, in American, one needs more than one American quarter, but in India, where they are just shiny collectibles, why would you need more than one?

Did you find happiness last time you went to the mall?

One of the things that struck me when I was in India, where it is not unusual for people to live in grass huts with dirt floors and even the finest homes often seem modest by American standards, was that people on the whole tended to be a lot more relaxed and easy-going.

They didn’t appear to be in a hurry to get anywhere, and they always had time to exchange smiles and chat.

Perhaps they are not, at heart, any happier than Americans, but they aren’t any unhappier, either.

We Americans have been living high for many years, grabbing for all the shiny collectibles we can fit in our big homes, our garages, our sheds, and our rented storage units.

Maybe it is time to consider what we really need.