Nov 26, 2021 • 8M

What can be learned from the suffering of the rich?

How I was cheered up by an article that argued I needed to make £300k to live comfortably in London

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I am not as poor as I once was, nor have I become wealthy. I have a spouse, kids, a rented roof over my head, wi-fi and a couple of gaming consoles. I really don’t know what else might improve it. A garden perhaps, not even a big one. Just somewhere where I can sit on a Spring, Summer or Autumn night reading a book and sipping a poncy beer. Not a rural garden either, I’ve always enjoyed a few square feet of grass with the sounds of the city blaring away in the background.

I was certainly poorer before. I know the relief of laying in my bed and staring at the ceiling with a profound gratitude whenever that month’s rent had cleared. I know what it’s like to work a demanding, manual job with an empty stomach. It was around the same time when I would occasionally attend open mics around London. One time, at an event in the basement of a restaurant in Notting Hill, the emcee earnestly stated that there are people who have to live on only 20k a year. It was the very same basement open mic where nobody put their hand up when the political agitator poet asked if there were any capitalists in the audience. At another event there was a kind of mock awards ceremony for the London poetry scene. I was given the award of “Most skint poet” by some hilarious bards that worked higher-paid office jobs.

I mention all of this as background to sharing a link with you to an article about how many people that work in the square mile think that if you live in London, you need to earn 300k a year to break even. The article turned up on my phone’s news feed, probably because the algorithm knows that I live in London and am therefore interested in the subject of London.

I did the calculations in my head. Excluding the earnings of my spouse, I probably still hadn’t hit that number in my 21 years of living within the perimeter of the M25. So, what was I missing out on with my way-under-300k household income? Skiing holidays, restaurant meals, private school places, a house in a part of London that doesn’t place me too close to a housing estate? Some speakers in the article elaborate on their particular quandaries with an almost beatific ignorance that poor and working class people make up part of the city’s population.

"The problem with London is that you always feel poor," says one buy-side employee earning $150k. "- You pay tons of taxes, your apartment costs a fortune and people around you are always super-rich. For sure, when you compare to the normal world, you feel lucky. But London makes you feel poor..."

In a way I can agree with part of this. I have definitely felt poor in London. I have never felt rich. But at the same time it only takes a short chat with a homeless person, a refugee or someone surviving on Universal Credit while living in sheltered accommodation with their family to stop me feeling poor. I have plenty of friends who get by on a much smaller household income than me. They might live in social housing or spend a lot less on shiny gizmos as I am prone to, but they get on just fine. They appreciate what they have.

I have also known what it is like to feel poor while living in a comparatively rich area. A long poem in a recent collection of mine (still available from Flipped Eye!) muses on living in an area long enough to see the rents double in the space of ten years. My wife and I had our wedding reception in a deconsecrated church that is now a community centre.  They struggled to make ends meet despite living in the shadow of all the skyscrapers in the Canary Wharf financial district. There is a particular strain of dehumanisation that occurs when you find yourself poor in the midst of great wealth.

And yet, when reading this article, I found myself feeling quite cheerful. I have read somewhere (I really wish I could remember where) that status anxiety occurs when we find ourselves in social situations that are just outside of our reach. A working class person might feel this in the company of a lower middle class person who in turn may feel the same pang in the company of an upper middle class person. Compared to my twenties and thirties I am probably occupying a more lower middle class position in society. I am also probably out-earned by many working class professionals but my jobs are no longer as blue collar as they once were. In this sense, when I read the assertion that a Londoner needs 300k in order to break even I can’t help but find it ripe for a good pisstake. When settling on a particular form of comfort we also sign up to a particular form of suffering. One of the first things I noticed when I met former boarding school kids for the first time when I went to University, was how their school days were just as unhappy as mine were.

Some commenters under the article seem to get this. Some talk about a front desk culture in which financial workers try to outdo each other. They advise that you can often find yourself spending less money by changing the circles of people you choose to hang out with. Another commenter had the audacity to say that money could be saved by sending the kids to a state school. The first reply: “You don’t want to be sending your kids to state school”. I still don’t understand this attitude, probably because I went to state schools and send my kids to state schools. I wonder how many people that went to state schools themselves make this argument? Or are the commenters people who never went to state schools and make some kind of mental hell out of the idea of them, in the same way that people who never grew up on housing estates don’t realise that housing estates are simply places where other people live?

I think this article also cheered me up in the sense that we all walk about with our own personal worst case scenario. For some of us, those scenarios are life or death in the most literal of senses. For others it tends to be something that isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. It is often something that we find ourselves able to deal with because the source of this anxiety had more to do with what others might think of us if the bad thing happened. In those days where I felt gratitude for a month’s rent clearing, I probably knew that there were enough couches and floors available for me to sleep on before I found myself properly out on the streets. The sting of being poor at the time was more about how I was seen by contemporaries from a middle class poetry scene. I’m sure that the fear that those commenters on the stupid article had of sending their kids to state school had more to do with the perceived indignity that such a thing might provoke with their own social circles.

When we seek to learn from the suffering of others we tend to look to those whose lives are worse than us. When I read the stoics I often find Epictetus more relatable than Marcus Aurelius or Seneca. His background as a former slave makes his speech about suffering seem more authentic. At the same time, my immediate response to any accounts about the suffering of the rich is often ridicule and, to be fair, the feckers deserve it. However, another reason why we may not seek to learn from the suffering of the rich is that our own suffering may also be trivial in someone else’s eyes. While I’m on the subject of the stoics, I can’t help but remind myself of the story about the early stoic Xeno and his dealings with his teacher Crates the Cynic.

From that day he became Crates's pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy, though with too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that he was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, with a blow of his staff he broke the pot. As Zeno took to flight with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, "Why run away, my little Phoenician?" quoth Crates, "nothing terrible has befallen you.

Similarly, if we are moved to ridicule the rich for the triviality of their suffering, we can then ask if our own suffering can be seen as similarly trivial. Crates was not denying that there are happenings that we can agree on as unambiguously bad, but at the same time, a lot of our anxieties can be seen as spilled lentil soup from the right perspective. The fact that I am able to do this with many anxieties is proof that I live a blessed existence, albeit one that wont win me lifetime buddies at a hedge fund firm.

Dear reader, whatever you are dealing with right now, I hope that most of it turns out to be spilled lentil soup and if that is not the case, I hope something good and nourishing turns up in your bowl soon enough.

A mural depicting Crates of Thebes