Interview with Shariff Abdullah
Shariff has experienced prosperity from all sides—from not enough to too much. Growing up in a poor family, he knew there was something wrong with a system that subjects families to debilitating poverty. As a lawyer, he realized there was something wrong with a system that laughs off the bad decisions of the wealthy. He’s witnessed those who have little, give much. And he sees that there is something in us—elusive, perhaps, but beautiful, that is so much more than what we hold in our hands. This is his story...
I was born in Philadelphia, but we soon moved across the river to Camden, New Jersey. At the time, Camden had the highest per capita income of any city in America. And there were no millionaires in it. Everyone had money. Camden was kind of the diamond on the industrial belt. The reason it’s now the worst city in America is because capitalism reached its terminal point there. This is what the down slide of capitalism looks like. Camden is what the rest of the country gets to look forward to unless we do something different.
I went to the worst school system in America. When National Public Radio (NPR) was looking for the worst high school in America, at that time, they went to Camden High. All along the process, I knew there was something wrong. I’m like 6-7-8 years old and I’m realizing human beings aren’t supposed to live like this. I’ve always had this vision of how human beings are supposed to… not supposed to, but can live. And then I look at what we’re doing and I say, “How do you get these two images together?”
Even though I was in the worst school system in the country, for some reason I do really, really well on standardized tests. I was always in the 95th percentile. That got me to a point where I could basically choose which college I wanted to go to. I wound up going to Clark University in central Massachusetts. And then to law school at Boston University.
After law school, I worked for a legal services office in North Carolina that was doing some really innovative, cutting edge work. After three years there and then another three years in private practice, I realized I wasn’t solving problems. I lost track of what it was that I was supposed to be doing. Finally one day I called up my secretary and said, “Call up all my clients, tell them to pick up their files. I am out of the business.” The decision was too precipitous, but I never questioned the decision itself. So I tell people I am now a productive citizen.
For awhile I was doing community development work. This was sticks and bricks kind of development. The idea was that if you develop the community, you develop the people in that community. That is simply not true. If you want to develop the people in the community, you just simply do that. And the development has to be the development of consciousness. Sitting people down and saying, “Think about this differently.”
But the stick and bricks development is what got me to Oregon. I was the Development Director for NE Community Development Corporation. Right around that time is when my international work started up. Now I’m up to 41 countries and well over 100 different cultures.
When I was in the Himalayas, I met Tsering Dolma. This woman is amazingly hard working. She lives at 14,000 feet, so getting to her took out of me everything I had. She raises all the food she eats, all the food her son eats, all the food her animals eat… and she has to do it in four months. It’s not easy work. But she is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. If you come to her, you will get water, you will get tea. If you’re there long enough, she’ll give you lunch, she’ll give you dinner. You can sleep over there. And she asks for nothing in return.
In the tourist season, people come through there. When you’re going up the Douk River, Tsering’s house is the first house in the village. You’re way up and you’re worn out by the time you get there. So I told her, “You can commoditize this. You can charge $10 to spend the night. People will think they’re getting an amazing bargain and you’ll have a few hundred dollars at the end of a month.” I was talking through her daughter, who was the one who dragged me there in the first place, and she translated. Tsering said, “Yes, I can do all that, but how do I accumulate merit? How do I exercise my compassion?” And I said to myself, “Shariff, shut up! You’re really here to just listen. You just received your lesson. Just shut up.”
So I was staying with this woman who may have never seen an airplane, who has no electricity, who may have never seen a television screen, who gets no electronic signal from anything. And that was perhaps the best three days of my life. I spent a lot of time listening to the rush of the water through the stream that cuts through the land that’s watering the barley.
We will spend thousands of dollars to go there to experience that. We will spend hundreds of dollars to go to central Pennsylvania to experience the Amish country. There’s something there… once you get past the quaintness of they’re all wearing black and they’ve got bonnets… you still have this unarticulated something that is shinmeringly beautiful. But if you don’t have the capacity to see it, you’ll think that those people are deprived. You’ll think that Tsering Dolma, who has less than one dollar a day to spend, is “poor”.
The Band of Prosperity
I’m on the Oregon Prosperity Taskforce. The taskforce was in business for awhile before I joined it. When I got there, I asked what I thought to be a simple question. But it turned out to be an ultimate question for them: “What is prosperity?” And my modifier was… “by prosperity do you mean having poor people live the same wasteful, extravagant lives that middle class people are living that is ruining the Earth right now? Are we trying to get poor people to the position where they, too, can be extravagant and wasteful?” Everybody got quiet around the table. Because we don’t want to face the basic questions of our living—what does it mean to be living here? What is a “prosperous” life?
We have an idea of what is not enough: somebody who’s sleeping in their car tonight with their kids, someone who is either stealing or begging food, or someone who is too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer. We have a good idea of what not enough is. But we don’t have an idea of what too much is. Too much is called, basically, our lifestyle.
When I work with groups, I talk about three levels or bands of “enoughness.” It’s different for every person, but it’s always there. There’s this band of “enough.” What you call prosperity, I would call enoughness. There is a band underneath it that is “not enough.” And then there is the band above it that is “too much.”
I believe that people who don’t have enough make bad decisions. And when they make bad decisions, society punishes them. I believe that people who have too much also make bad decisions. And when they make bad decisions, society praises them. If we could alter that picture, we would change the way people think of themselves and society. Two examples come to mind.
When I was growing up, we were really, really poor. There were times when there was simply not enough food. There’s a feeling when there’s not enough food… we could see that we were eating, but my mom wasn’t eating. There was only a little food on our plates, and we knew not to ask for seconds. So when there was money, we would go to the store and she would buy food. As we were going through the aisles, she would get a package of cookies and break it open and she would stuff us with cookies while we were riding around in the cart. We knew it was wrong. My mother was breaking the law. She was stealing. But those are the choices that society forces on a person by giving them a welfare check that will either pay their rent or buy food for their children, but not do both. That’s one form of bad decision.
Second form of bad decision: In my second year of law school, I was clerking for a large, very Yankee law firm in Massachusetts. They gave me a case to work on where a client had gone out with an airplane salesman, got drunk and bought an airplane. He wrote a check for a $30,000 deposit on this $300,000 jet and came into the law office on Monday morning, saying, “Get me out of this!” The contract he signed was iron-clad. There’s even a clause: “If you’re drunk at a bar signing a check, it’s still valid.” But I called the airplane salesman and all he wanted was his commission, which was $3000. So the client gladly paid the $3000 and tore up the contract. The client was happy, the law firm was happy and I’m sitting there thinking, “What are you doing with a checkbook that has $30,000 in it while you’re drunk in a bar?” There’s something that’s not tracking here. This guy makes an amazingly bad decision. We get him out of it and he’s only dinged $3000. This is what happens when you are out of prosperity. You’re out of prosperity because you don’t have enough and you’re out of prosperity because you’ve got too much.
Getting to Prosperity
There are two ways for society to get to true prosperity. There’s the easy way… Actually, come to think of it, there’s just the really hard way and then there’s the disastrous way. The really hard way is that we, as a society, need to have a soul-searching discussion and dialog about what are our duties and responsibilities as citizens of a country, but more importantly, as citizens of a planet. We, by default, are acting out of this thing we call the American Dream, which has been perverted into “Get as much stuff as possible. The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
I see no sign that we are going to have that conversation and dial down our living. And therefore you get to the disastrous avenue, which is: the systems and structures that can fall apart, will fall apart. When they do, they will take massive amounts of the system with them. The people who survive will figure out what happens from there. That could trigger the forward thinking of “This didn’t work. Let’s see what will work for our children.” Or it could trigger exactly the opposite, “Let me entrench, let me get more, let me defend it with my guns. Let’s see how quickly we can get back to the status quo, the way we had it, what we had in the past.” And of course it won’t work. There will be another way.
I was in Argentina after their economic collapse and watched what happens when money goes away. On trash night, I saw thousands, literally thousands of formerly middle class people going through somebody else’s garbage, trying to find food to eat. The things that people did during those times, were amazing in how low human beings can sink, but amazing in how people can pull together.
One of my friends in Argentina has a little ranch of 3000 acres and she grows soybeans. When the market collapsed, they were okay on their farm because they had food to eat. But there was no market for the soybeans. So what farmers do is plow them under because it will enrich the soil and be better for the next season. But she harvested the soybeans, which involves money, people, labor, gas—and drove them all the way into Buenos Aires, where people were starving. But nobody had ever seen a soybean! People didn’t know what to do with them. So she had to go online and find recipes for cooking soybeans and while she’s handing the food out, she’s handing the recipes as well.
She didn’t have to do any of that. She’s like Tsering Dolma in the Himalayas. There was no logical reason for giving away their resources. There’s nothing material that you get by giving away your food, giving away your lodging, etc. The thing you get is something different and it’s so valuable and so needed. Our young people don’t get any of it.
What you get is the thing that is missing in our society: compassion. We believe that compassion only works one way: “I’m going to help those nasty, stinky, dirty people down there.” That’s when you go to the soup kitchen and you think, “I’m going to give you a plate and I’m going to smile at you, but I’m still above you. I’m giving something to you.”
But compassion with inclusivity is the notion that there’s always an exchange. When I’m giving from my heart, not from my guilt, I get this increase in my heart and increase in my being. I’m actually giving to myself. When that happens, the thing that’s getting exchanged, isn’t the food or the money or whatever. It’s an inner gift that both people share. It’s an awakening.