Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 12:56 PM on Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Homer residents wealthy with what matters most

Last Saturday while covering the Occupy Homer demonstration, I saw a sign held by a woman that stuck with me. "Compassion not cash makes the world, go around," the sign read.


Michael Armstrong

Occupy Homer and other similar events held around the world question the inequality of wealth. At the top we have the 1 percent — people who make more than $1.1 million, one sign said — and below that are the rest of us. The 1 percent have too much power and wealth, the argument seems to go. Meanwhile, the rest of us haven't advanced our fortunes as rapidly as the super rich, if we still have jobs, if our mortgages aren't underwater.

Thinking about that sign, though, made me wonder. Maybe we 99 percent have the real wealth while the super rich — some of them, anyway — suffer another kind of poverty. Maybe while being materially rich they lack what blesses many of us in Homer: social wealth.

In an essay in the Oct. 14 Anchorage Daily News, Judith Kleinfeld, the University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emerita, explores the question, "Do nice guys really finish last?" Kleinfeld cites research that shows arrogant, less agreeable men make more money than men who describe themselves as "nice." There's an upside, Kleinfeld notes. Agreeable men score higher in life satisfaction, have more friends and are more involved in their communities.

You know, kind of like almost every person you know in Homer.

We might not be a wealthy town; in a lot of ways, the lower Kenai Peninsula is dirt poor. Many of us have friends and neighbors who live in small cabins, don't have running water and have a lifestyle well below the poverty line. Many of us get disability and qualify for social services programs. It doesn't take more than a visit to the weekly Homer Community Food Pantry to see how rough some people have it here.

But we also live in a strong community, the kind of town where when a well loved, nice guy gets sick and faces huge medical bills, people don't even get out of their trucks at fundraisers for him — they just pass checks through their car windows.

We have strong social connections here, too. We know our neighbors. You can't go to the post office or grocery store without seeing someone you know. Most of us have to plan a little chat time when running errands. We go to church, volunteer for nonprofits, serve on boards, go to fundraisers, coach sports and do the hundreds of unpaid (except in love) jobs that make a small town work.

Years ago I made a conscious choice to pursue a life of art. My writing teachers told me to hope for wealth but expect poverty. At the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, the boot camp for writers I went to in 1975, fellow student Kim Stanley Robinson gave us a talk on getting by on very little, with hints like developing a taste for ramen noodles. I knew my career would be tough, and I learned to take joy in the moments of creation and the pleasure of art itself.

When I went to college reunions, I'd see my fellow graduates advancing as chief executive officers, movers and shakers in industry. I struggled as a freelancer and taught as an adjunct professor. Some of my fellow New College of Florida alums have done very well. One woman was a senior executive at Coach — a company that makes expensive objects for carrying other expensive objects, I think. Some got their wealth the old-fashioned way, by inheriting it, while others worked really hard. If I'd wanted to set aside my writing career and go to business or law school I probably could have done as well.

But no. I moved to Homer. I continued writing. When a full-time job with benefits came along, I starting working here at the Homer News. I am not extremely rich. I am not even moderately well off, although compared to many in this town, I am blessed with a steady job. In setting aside the chance to make tons of money I acquired something far more valuable.


I have developed deep friendships in this town, deeper than anything I've known outside of family. I dearly love my neighbors. I love my work, and while my salary remains stuck, people regularly honor me with kind words about my writing. I try to respect that appreciation by writing better and telling the stories of the people I've come to know here.

If I slide off the road, someone will pull me out. I remember the first time I broke down in Homer, before I moved here. There my truck sat, dead on the side of Diamond Ridge. People kept stopping to help. One guy pulled out a coil from his spare parts bin and tried to get me running. I remember thinking, "Dang, this is a town I want to live in."

I don't know if rich people enjoy such social wealth. When their Mercedes breaks down in a gated community, does a guy in a pickup truck try to get it going? The rich person probably calls road service. When rich people get sick, do friends come over with salmon? Can a rich person measure generosity in a thousand kind gestures?

Compassion, not cash. In this town, we have earned the wealth of compassion, because that is the currency we trade in. Sometimes it's the only currency we have. We don't practice kindness in the expectation that we will receive kindness. We practice kindness for the sake of kindness, and it just happens that people practice kindness back.

You 1 percent can join us. Those of you who give freely not of your money but of yourself will receive social wealth in return. If you give of yourself, though, with that compassion also will come social equality. You won't need outrageous bonuses to become richer. You won't need new toys, new homes and new clothes. Your kindness will lead you to take care of your employees, of the people who have helped you make your fortune. It will lead you to care for your community. It will lead you to see how your wealth can make the world better.

If that happens, we will not be 1 percent or 99 percent. We will be the 100 percent, loving, giving, caring and wealthy in the only way that matters.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.