I was eager to read David Brooks’ column in the NY Times, The Great Affluence Fallacy, because the primary goal many have of becoming affluent—and therefore “happy”—doesn’t make sense to me.
In 18th-century America, no Indians were defecting to join colonial society, but many whites were defected to live in with Native Americans, even when they’d been taken prisoner by Indians. The settlers could hardly believe their fellow colonials would hide from their rescuers—wasn’t their own society richer and more advanced?
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
Brooks’ column reminded me of one of my favorite books, Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn. An American Indian elder takes Nerburn on a journey in the Dakotas to try to teach him about the Indian experience. The elder had observed as a child that his white teachers seemed to think talking meant thinking. They looked down upon Indian children for being to quiet or for looking down, as they’d been taught to do when someone important was talking. And the elder wondered what made white people so nervous that they were always interrupting and arguing with each other? I can easily relate to quiet people; I’m quiet myself and have felt looked down upon because of it.
Brooks writes, “As we’ve gotten richer, we’ve used wealth to buy space: bigger homes, bigger yards, separate bedrooms, private cars, autonomous lifestyles. Each individual choice makes sense, but the overall atomizing trajectory sometimes seems to backfire. According to the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression by as much as eight times the rate as people in poor countries. There might be a Great Affluence Fallacy going on — we want privacy in individual instances, but often this makes life generally worse.”
The Indians Nerburn observed never seemed to be alone. Brooks writes about millennials and how they seem to be headed in the direction of community, too. Millennials bring their whole self to work, “turning the office into a source of friendships, meaning and social occasions.” They are “oriented around neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity.”
Finally, Brooks writes, “Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, I get the sense a lot of people are actually about to make the break and immerse themselves in demanding local community movements. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big change in the coming decades were this: an end to the apotheosis of freedom; more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap.”