I wanted to be a wealthy, self-made man. I tried, but got stuck on the awfully obvious fact that wealth depends on existence. I must first exist in order to own my books, Apple products and college savings. Such an simple truth, but such a prickly problem for a man about the business of being wealthy, that is, of owning much. For do I own my existence?
No. Upon extremely little reflection, I have come to understand that my existence is as given as soup ladled into a bowl by an obnoxious youth group leader wearing a Jesus-tee at the charity kitchen, entirely dependent on others, namely — and on the most obvious level — my parents.
We, the rich and the trying, are as foolish and adorable as children who, let into the pet store by their parents to pick out a guinea pig, claim sole and rightful ownership of the animal, forgetting momentarily that they were brought into the pet store and given a field of possible ownership. All ownership is founded in gift, all self-made riches are dependent upon a handout existence, and there are no self-made men, for self-made men have mothers.
Poverty is the primary fact of human existence. Everything we have we were first given. We are not like the horse, who can run after birth, nor like the insect, born with all the instincts it needs to thrive, nor like the oak tree, growing and unfolding according to its nature. The human person is that kind of creature who becomes himself (who actualizes his personal potentiality) through gift. We are rational animals, sure, but we are only properly rational through the use of language — and language is given to us by our parents and our community. Man distinguishes himself from the animals by his sense of morality, sure, but morality is taught, and the virtues are given to us by our parents and community. “We are adapted by nature to receive them, and [they] are made perfect by habit.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics) We are given wellbeing and stability — whether psychological or spiritual — through love, and love is given.
I’m trying to say that the newborn human being is that type of creature who dies if he is not touched, that we are the cosmic height of poverty — born begging. If from this bareness we are then clothed with the capacity to buy houses, fine, good, but we are no more rich, no more self-made than the welfare recipient or the birds of the field, who find themselves feathered with the capacity to fly.
If all ownership is rooted in gift, and all wealth is a dependency upon our parents, then poverty is less of a time-period of material destitution as much as it is a final honesty, a stripping of self to the core of what it means to exist. We may own, we may even own a lot, but only because we were let into the pet store, given our capacity to own. Poverty is honesty. This, at least, is what I believe Wallace Stevens is expressing in his poem Lebensweisheitspielerei.
Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.
Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.
Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.
Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation