“It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.” ~ Hermann Hesse
To have wealth is to know privilege, it is said. To live with the luxuries coveted by so many over the ages is to be granted the greatest advantages – to know the finest of wines and the favor of the elites; to taste the teachings of higher education and the right to marry into the most accomplished of families. It is to have no stone of opportunity left unturned.
Yet for those born into great wealth, there is often a problem of perspective, particularly for the young. One such family, years ago, had come to be so insulated by the privilege passed down over generations that a tradition had developed centuries prior: before any child of the family had reached the age of fourteen, they were sent, accompanied by one of the adult servants, to live and work on a farm in one of the poorest areas of the country for a week.
It was always arranged that the workers on the farm were made unaware of their visitors’ true status, so they were treated just the same as any other poor family passing through. The children, many of whom had been significantly entitled, insolent and troublesome prior to their trip, always returned with an entirely changed perspective – humbled and grateful for their wealth and terribly relieved to be free of the horrible conditions they had been trapped in for the week.
This particular year, the head of the great family was anxious to send his youngest boy off. The child was unlike any of his numerous siblings, nor any other member of the family that his father could recall. Though quite a nice boy – exceptionally intelligent, respectful and unusually understanding for his age – he had become increasingly isolated, unhappy and questioning in the last few years.
Now almost ten, he was bordering on the morose, a demeanor everyone in the family found unsettling for someone still so young. Upon his departure, the boy did his best to seem cheery and give his genuine well-wishes, but it was still quite apparent that he was feeling very depressed. Everyone was hopeful that a week of living amongst the country’s poorest would bring him out of it, finally.
To the family’s surprise, however, the servant they had sent him with, Edwina, returned in tears after the week was finished, minus the boy.
“He absolutely refused to come!” she cried. “I could not even drag him away, and the other farm-hands there only helped him! They want him to stay!”
The boy’s father was horrified. “How could this happen!” he hollered, ordering the other servants to begin preparation for their departure immediately.
Trembling, Edwina handed him a letter. “He told me to give you this.”
Dearest Father & Mother,
I love you. And I thank you for this wonderful gift. I know that you only want the best for me in life, which is why you sent me here, in order that I may appreciate the tremendous wealth our family possesses.
And I do, very much so.
Yet I also understand, quite clearly now, the difference between wealth and privilege. Never in my life have I known privilege until now. I am privileged to wake before dawn and sleep again only when the moon is high. I am privileged to share in the nourishment of our humble but hardy daily meals, made available to me only through the graciousness of our hosts. I am privileged to stand witness to the endless bounty of the earth and the animals that know her, and to understand finally what it means to be in service to that earth – even though it will often draw blood from my hands before the day is through.
And, more than anything else, I am privileged to know the beauty of simplicity. How everything is connected. Where our family has one dog, left to play and run on her own, this farm has four, together everyday. Where we have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden, they have a creek that has no end. Where we have the finest imported lanterns hanging in our garden at night, they have the stars, ancient and boundless. Where we have a piece of land that many consider large, they possess fields that travel beyond eyesight. Where we buy our food, they grow theirs, fresh from the same earth that they trod. Where we have walls around our property to protect us, they have friends to protect them.
For all of these reasons, and many more that are beyond words, this past week has been the greatest education of my life. I understand that I cannot stay. I understand that you will come for me, and that you are surely very angry. Please don’t blame Edwina. I made it impossible for her to bring me back. It is no fault of hers. I only wanted but one more day in this place, and even though it tortures me to leave, I look forward to seeing you. Please know that I will no longer be any trouble at home, for I understand so much more now than I ever have before.
Image: Homer Winslow – “For to Be a Farmer’s Boy”, as restored by artrenewal.org