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March 15, 2012

It is a beautiful summer day in the early nineties. The asphalt on the street outside is baking in the sun. I am standing, barefoot, below the big whitebeam in my parents’ garden, looking up into the canopy and thinking about climbing it. The first branch is within reach, it is about head height for me. I can see the spot where the trunk divides, but it seems impossibly far up to my ten-year-old eyes. The uppermost reaches of the tree are hidden behind the leaves of the lower branches, and not even visible to me on the ground.

I climb the tree, because why not? To get up on the first branch, I have to hang from it and kind of walk up the trunk. I have done it many times before, but it still feels like a small achievement. After getting up, I pause for a few seconds and survey the garden. The ground is below me, not far enough away to make me nervous, but definitely below. Looking up to plan my further climb, I see the spot where the trunk divides. I can reach it. Beyond it, the top of the tree rustles its leaves tantalizingly in the warm summer winds.

I climb up to the spot where the trunk divides. The treetop is within reach now, and with it the promise of a glorious view of the neighbourhood. A quick look down reveals the first branch below me, and below that, far enough below to make my stomach churn, is the ground.

I climb to the treetop, as high as the branches will still bear me. I cling hard to them. All of the tree is below me, and the ground is so far down that I don’t want to look downwards at all. I look out over our neighbours’ houses and gardens instead. Everything is green and bright, this quiet summer day.

Climbing that old whitebeam tree is how I learned the concept of “levels”. The height I’m at, that’s normal, that’s standard. What is far below, below, above but within reach, and far above, that depends on where I am. Yes, it sounds trivial when written out like that. But the visceral sense of “hey, that far-below place, that’s the same place that was normal only minutes ago!”, that feeling has stayed with me. A feeling that this isn’t as trivial as it sounds. A feeling that this is actually important to keep track of.

These days, I don’t climb trees any more. But I’m still very aware of levels. Not levels of altitude this time, but levels of wealth. It works exactly the same. No matter how little money I have, I get by, but wouldn’t mind having more. No matter how much I have, I find it incredible that anybody could get by with less. And as evidenced by the quotes in this Cracked article, I’m not alone.

The wealth I’m at, that’s normal, that’s standard. What counts as destitute, poor, comfortable and rich, that depends on how much I earn. It’s not quite as trivial as in the altitude example. And I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

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