It has been with me all day today that I have lived my life poor by choice. Went to further education with ambition to make more money, have a nice car, a few really nice suits, a nice place with a good sound system. The Fifties American teenage dream. By the time I'd finished schooling, I didn't want any of it, mostly on moral grounds. Those were the years of developing my morality to live by. Continuous church from age six to eighteen, I was in flight from religion through the college years, wanted no more to do with it. I'd learned no morality to live by, only No, Don't, and You Better Not. I wanted to break the rules, commit taboo, and, at the same time, look for a real morality to live by. The morality of you-better-not was a coffin. For somebody growing up into his unknown life, I did not want to live my life in the grave. Much as I resent, still, the overkill browbeating of a dead religion throughout my early years, I see in retrospect it set me on my spiritual path as a natural consequence of recognizing what I had was fake, inspiring a search for what is real. Then the question, what makes something real and something else fake?
I looked for a lot of years at that one. In illusion, what's the difference? Start over with collectively agreed upon reality, the reality of the scientific method, physical reality. Kick a table leg barefoot, it hurts. Duality: pain and pleasure, right and wrong, high and low, in and out, to and from, the wedding of heaven and hell. In this reality I attempt to distinguish real from fake with no guidelines or rule book or discourses to go by. I have to go by intuition, by feeling. I recall my friend John, whose bookstore I worked in through the college years, who grew up Catholic, and had the same allergic reaction I had to Fundamentalism, threw the baby out with the bathwater. He called himself an atheist and I understood his reasoning. He was, at once, the most moral human being I have known, along with a few others I've known in the mountains. He kept a quotation from Shakespeare on the wall in the store that I saw a hundred times a day, To thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. I found it to be so in John, and over the years found it to be true in myself. In a real sense, this is the foundation of the morality I live by. More has grown on top of this, though more or less subtle versions of same. The morality I've come into on my own is not restrictive. It expands.
In the dark is the seed of the light---in the light is the seed of the dark. In my time of agnostic thinking and atheist thinking, this quotation from Shakespeare of being true to self was an everyday point in the life, the core of my moral thinking. I didn't need any more verses to memorize of God sez. I needed something to live with that had practical application, something that was not a s'posed-to, but made sense, something I could see applying it in everyday life would, indeed, improve the quality of one's life. I believed God in the early part of the life, but such a twisted version I could not live with it as a rational, or even semi-rational human being, but in denial of my humanity. In the time I was seeking my humanity. Early part of the life, God was Fear. Later part of the life, God is Love. The seeking part in between had in it the seed, To thine own self be true. It is the mountain ethic, be who you are. John has been true to himself all the way along, is now 103, still has a clear mind. When it comes to truly honest people I've known, I'd say more than you'd think, because sometimes I think of a liar as true, true to who he is. Sometimes the lies are self-defense by vulnerable people, and there are an awful lot of different vulnerabilities going around.
What does this have to do with why I live poor? It has everything to do with it. I live below the poverty level and the taxes due from my labor is no support to American military rule of the world and the American people. I do not support it morally, and I do not support it with the fruits of my labor. It's not about politics. It's about morality. Like a conscientious objector. I live simply in order not to pay into the military machine that kills poor people all around the globe and at home. I don't support it morally, and cannot contribute to it with my labor. Patti Smith sings in my head, Outside of society, that's where I wanna be. I live in a self-titled Christian society that hates the poor, the vulnerable, the down and out. How can I live with a moral conscience in this society and not be one of the poor? I live simply by choice, and in one way of looking at it, by empathy. It's different from being put out of your work and your home. Thanks to Social Security, it bypasses the desolation. I can look the truly poor people I know and come in contact with straight in the eye with understanding, them not feeling like I think I'm coming from a higher place than they are. A few weeks ago I saw someone I know who is the poorest of the poor in every way, we talked awhile and my heart glowed with love for this guy I've known since he was a child, who was born with everything against him, keeps on going with another woman taking care of him, and all I could think was, There but for the grace of God go I. It was a powerful moment. I made myself leave before falling into weeping. I don't want to pay taxes to my government that will not help people unable to help themselves. It's that simple.
john sloan by john sloan