You can’t stash true wealth in a bank

By John Beckman • Guest Columnist

The concept of wealth has been sideswiped over the last few decades. It seems that the former notion of amassing assets through hard work and sacrifice, and using them to do philanthropic community good, has given way to a “What’s in it for Me?” assumption. I fear that we are losing the sense of real value in our relationships to society and to each other, mauled by advertising hype and incredibly lousy role models. Stuff has taken over substance, and excessive quantity trounced true quality. It appears that many people confuse wealth with belongings, when genuine belonging can only come from our alliance with and connection to others. Will this recession finally slay the American mega-consumer and the more is better mindset?

I recently had a visit from an old friend, old in several ways and a friend in many. We met when he was 53 and I was a hell-bent 16-year-old. Little did I know at the time how rich and deep his friendship would become. He had just retired from a 33-year career in the Army and was setting out single-handedly to restore a now sad but once grand brick mansion two doors up from my parent’s house. I needed teen money and told him I could for anything for $5 an hour.

We’ve kept in close touch for the past three and one-half decades, so, when he turned 87, I sent him a plane ticket to Asheville to come and see how great life is in Western North Carolina. As experienced local hosts know, there is a lot for visitors to see and do here in a few days to try to capture the diverse flavors the mountains have to offer. Fortunately, with my guest being almost 90, I could eliminate extreme rock-climbing, marathon biking, Class V rapids and thru-hiking the A.T., which was fine by me and my aging knees. There are plenty of less strenuous options in these parts for those wise in years.

My friend is a great one for careful observation and critical analysis of what he sees, examining things in their own context and how they associate with all things around it, rather than from some vacuous arena or prejudice. I haven’t found too many people who can do this, and these are some of the best kinds of friends, as they often challenge their friends to define and distill their positions for deeper understanding and insights.

On a ride down US 441 to visit my former farm, my friend commented on the over-abundance of U-Store-It units littering the sides of the road, which led to a discussion about over-consumption, lost priorities and a drifting mindset in much of America, afloat on an ocean of socially-hyped inadequacy. The general conclusion was that if a person has the means to meet their basic necessities and just a little bit extra, then they are in the eyes of the world, wealthy. Friendships and involvement in one’s community and the accompanying sense of belonging do not require hordes of cash nor huge houses full of stuff. By working cooperatively to improve the surroundings for the greater majority of a society, the individual life is made richer, more meaningful and of greater value to others.

I introduced him to my friends the baker, the brewer, the restaurant owner, my garden helper, my postmaster, innkeeper, landscaper friend, septic installer and any friends we’d see on the street. Each one seemed a treat to share. We took in a HART production, photographed historic sites, dropped in a couple galleries and I noticed again just how great friends make great moments happen. We talked late into the night after my wife had left us to “solve the problems of the world.” Our discourses ran the gamut from politics to power tools, logic verses emotion, and from interpreting the Constitution to photographing clouds. These are rich times, I thought, as I drifted to sleep.

On the last night of his visit we splurged on $3 cigars topped off with shots of very average blended scotch over ice, and a couple hours on the porch overlooking the constantly changing waters of the creek. I felt a sense of richness deeply listening to the creek and the voice of a friend, wanting for nothing more than what I had at the moment. I wouldn’t have traded places with Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, assets be damned.

I met a new friend recently I look forward to sharing time with, and headed to Raleigh recently to lay to rest another I have much enjoyed for the past 25 years. Friendship, as it turns out, is true wealth, gathered over time and best when shared with others, glittering more than all the gold of Midas and the best investment a person can make.

(John Beckman is a farmer, builder and observer living in Cullowhee. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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