In her book Simple Wisdom for Rich Living Oseola McCarty outlines the philosophy that helped her through a lifetime of hard work, loneliness and hardship. Born into poverty in 1908 Mississippi McCarty worked almost 80 years as a washerwoman and amassed a $280, 000 fortune. In early 1995 she gave away most of it to the University of Southern Mississippi. In August 18-year old Stephanie Bullock received the first Oseola McCarty Scholarship. “Miss McCarty had made sure that others would have the education she was denied.” xiii
McCarty had to leave school at eight years old. Her father died and she had to help her grandmother, mother and aunt financially. She worked side by side with the three women. Shannon Maggio writes in the introduction, In her adult years, it was faith that sustained Oseola through the greatest trials of her life: the loss of her grandmother in1944, her mother in 1964, and her aunt in 1967. Those three women had been her nurturers, housemates, coworkers, and confidantes since her birth. Their absence left her alone in the world. xii
McCarty offers words of wisdom about work, money, faith, relationships and the good life. She wants to share the values and philosophy of simplicity that helped her live a full life without material things. About work she says, “I knew there were people who didn’t have to work as hard as I did, but it didn’t make me feel sad. I loved to work, and when you love to do anything, those things don’t bother you. I just loved the work.” 6 About money she says, “The secret to building a fortune is compounding interest. It’s not the ones that make the big money, but the ones who know how to save who get ahead. You’ve got to leave your investment alone long enough for it to increase.” 18 This summarizes her philosophy: work hard, save and invest and practice gratitude.
I have just one criticism of McCarty’s book. I wish it wouldn’t end. I don’t tire of her stories. The book’s strength lies in its timeless message. I recommend it to college students. Her message reminds me of Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society who asks his students, “Law, banking, medicine these are all important to sustain life but what do we sustain life for?” For McCarty work becomes her life. She works because she has to but also because she wants to. Her work gives her purpose. She always offers her best and because she does her job expertly she loves it.
College students have the opportunity to choose the work they will do. Not everyone gets that chance. They should choose carefully and work not just to sustain life but to define it. They should do their work with pride no matter what others in society may think of the value of said work. They should do their work well and then they will learn to love it.
McCarty teaches the reader about contentment and simple pleasures. She says, “It’s important to make special memories with the people you love… I remember Christmases spent with my mother, grandmother, and aunt… They worked most nights babysitting or serving at parties. They came home loaded with big plates of food. We would light the Christmas tree and sit down to a late dinner. We took joy in being together.”53
College students in debt should heed her message, “A smart person plans for the future. You never know what emergency will come and you can’t rely on the government to meet all your needs. You have to take responsibility for yourself.” 31 Her message of self-reliance seems foreign in 2008 supposedly capitalist America.
I read Simple Wisdom for Rich Living in 1996 at a crossroads in my life. I felt burned out as a teacher. I felt what I did and whether or not I did it well didn’t matter. McCarty’s philosophy helped reenergize my work. I changed a lot of what I do in my classes and rediscovered the importance of my work. I try to always do my best, respect my students and give thanks I can do what I do. I love what I do. I’ve also applied the wonder of compounded interest as I’ve worked to grow my small fortune. I live modestly and could probably afford to retire now at age 43 but I won’t. I choose to work. I need to work for the purpose and direction it gives me. Like McCarty I’ll probably work as long as my health allows it and each day I do my work I love it more.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Financial freedom gives me choices a debt slave can’t imagine. Like McCarty I’ve learned to control my desires. My philosophy has almost a Zen quality to it. Desire breeds pain. Its absence breeds freedom and fortune. McCarty reminds the reader, “I try to keep things as simple and organized as possible.” 78 Mastery of simplicity rests in the art of no. I learned to say no to those things that complicate my life, those things others might deem important but I consider a waste of time or an obstacle to the goals I’ve set for me. Many in America have an obsession with debt. Their desires exceed their ability to pay and they wonder, “Why save? I could die tomorrow.”
McCarty writes, “Some people make a lot of noise about what’s wrong with the world, and they usually blame someone else. I think people need to look at themselves first.” 79 We can all take control of our lives. It just takes a wise, simple philosophy.
Copyright Professor Bert Lorenzo, 2008