Who's the wealthiest person you've ever known? Most of us, when asked that question, think of the people we've known who were richest in monetary wealth. But what if you asked the question differently?
In terms of what really makes life worth living, who's the wealthiest person you've ever known? Have you known anyone who has truly made the world a better place? Have you known anyone whose life is so filled with joy, who cares so deeply, who loves so richly that--whether or not they are financially abundant--their lives are a blessing to the rest of us?
When we say someone is a "success," what do we mean? Do we mean that she or he is an emotionally balanced, loving human being? Do we mean that this person is creative and artistic and adds beauty to the world? Not usually. Instead, most of us reserve the word "success" for people who have made a lot of money.
This is how we impoverish ourselves. This is why we need a new vision of the good life.
In the twentieth century, Big Business made a critical decision to convert American citizens into consumers. Tossing out more traditional values in favor of rampant consumerism may have served short-term business interests, but it also left a huge vacuum behind. It's unlikely that we'll be able to easily shift Big Business (what's left of it) back to a healthier paradigm any time soon. Nevertheless, you are encouraging about the possibilities for change. Why is that?"¨
Our very language has shifted to reflect a preoccupation with consumption and spending. People in civilized nations used to be called "citizens." Now we are identified as "consumers" (a term that means, according to the dictionary definition of "consume," people who "use up, waste, destroy, and squander"). We now call that portion of our income that is not required to cover our basic needs by the phrase "disposable income," as though there was something intrinsic to this part of our income requiring us to dispose of it. What if we called it "conservable income"? And we speak of consumer "goods," as though items for sale possessed some intrinsic goodness. Wouldn't it be more accurate to call them consumer "products"?
But I think the tide is turning. I think more and more people are seeing where "shop "til the planet drops" takes us, and want no part of it. More and more people are wanting to discover how to create lives of real quality that don't depend on acquiring and using so much.
I believe there is a hidden blessing in the economic crisis, in the necessary return to reality from a make- waste society. Many of us know, at some level, that we have become caught up in something deeply out of balance, that we are going way too fast, that we are speeding past too many of the things and moments that could really matter. Many of us sense that life is too precious and too precarious to live the way we are living.
You had your epiphany a lot earlier than most of us when, as a young adult, you walked away from the opportunity to carry on the Baskin-Robbins name and tradition. What was it that was not ringing true for you and how hard was it to turn your back on that life and lifestyle?
I knew how high ice cream is in saturated fat and sugar, and I was coming to see the link with heart disease. An ice cream cone never killed anyone, but the more ice cream people eat the more likely they are to develop health problems, and the company naturally wanted to sell as much ice cream as possible. It was disturbing to consider that people might suffer more heart attacks as a result of the company's meteoric growth.
In 1967, my uncle Burt Baskin, my father's partner in the company, died of a heart attack. A big man, he was only fifty-four years old. I was overwhelmed with grief for the loss of my beloved uncle and increasingly troubled by the existential dilemma I was facing.
I asked my father if he thought there might be any connection between the amount of ice cream my uncle ate and his fatal heart attack. "Absolutely not," he snapped. "His ticker just got tired and stopped working."
It was not hard to understand why my father wouldn't want to consider that there might be a connection. By that time he had manufactured and sold more ice cream than any other human being who had ever lived on this planet. He didn't want to think that ice cream harmed anyone, much less that it had anything to do with the death of his beloved brother-in-law and business partner. But I could not keep from wondering.
My dad had groomed me since my earliest childhood to one day succeed him at Baskin-Robbins. The company was expanding rapidly, with annual sales in the billions of dollars. But despite the considerable lure of great wealth, I felt called to a different way of life, one whose purpose wasn't focused on making the most money but on making the biggest difference. Every new generation has an instinct to step out on its own, but what was stirred in me felt somehow much deeper than a stereotypical father-son generational split.
As a teenager, I had read the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who challenged the relentless pursuit of money and social status. "I love to see anything," he wrote, "that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth." Seeing people too often make themselves what he called "slaves to the acquisition of money and things," he suggested that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without."