Living within walking distance of the boyhood homes of both billionaire Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen – and within a city, Seattle, that is often said to have one of the largest millionaire populations in the country – extreme wealth is something that charms me daily. So, when the Atlantic recently published a provocative article entitled “Secret Fears of the Super-Rich,” I couldn’t help but peek into the dark side of the American dream.
Based on findings from a study conducted at Boston College, readers are given an inside look at some of the deep anxieties and eccentric problems of the enviably wealthy. Those who answered the survey (they possess an average net worth of $78 million) confess they have to worry about how money alters their relationships (“How many people we know would cut us off if they didn’t think they could get something from us?”) and about passing along an inheritance to their children that is either too large (undermine achievement) or too small (create resentment). Many also live estranged lives (robbed of the social interaction offered by work) and have few friends outside of their super-rich circles (no one else can empathize with their anxieties). Despite having millions, a feeling of true security still eludes them.
I read the article with a blend of voyeuristic curiosity and righteous indignation. But then it occurred to me that these findings might have implications for those of us who are only relatively super rich (that would be the vast majority of us living in North America). Although my level of wealth is far from those included in the study, I too have an odd relationship with money. Why is it that I am among the wealthy elite (by global standards), yet I spend more time thinking about my wants than others’ needs? How is it that while I willingly earn much less than I could (serving in Christian versus secular academia or back in private industry), I catch myself grumbling about my raise every year? And, although I have deep worries about spoiling my children to the extent of taking measures to make sure they earn their weekly allowance, they, like all their friends, need an entire toy basement to contain their amusements.
Don’t get me wrong. Giving is a regular practice in our family and we make awareness of suffering in the world a point of pride. But, let’s face it, our sacrifices aren’t all that deep. Similar to the insatiable appetites of those in the very top echelon, we too find ourselves perpetually short of the illusive destination called “Enough.” Neither do we have very many friends outside our socioeconomic strata. Turns out we non-super rich have our secret fears (and real issues) too.
In light of the typical adulation of wealth that runneth over in our culture, the not too surprising conclusion of the Atlantic article that the richest of the rich shouldn’t be envied is refreshing. However, little is offered in terms of a way to even partially escape our own trappings. Thankfully, Christ gave many insights about the means to attaining a life of true abundance: to find our lives, we must paradoxical give them away; earthly treasure cannot come close to measuring our true net worth; wealth can easily become the object of our true allegiance.
The emerging field of positive psychology (“the science of happiness”) seems to offer some scientific affirmation of these truths. Not too far beyond the point of meeting our basic needs (far south of super rich), money cannot fulfill our deeper needs. Engaging in acts of gratitude, serving others and finding work (if we can) that is done more for its own sake (a calling) than for money or advancement (a career) are some of the newly discovered keys to flourishing.
The parts of my relationship with money that I dare call healthier sure seem to be products of corollary practices: Devaluing wealth by regularly giving it (and time) away; honoring a Sabbath mindset as a reminder that there is more to life than material pursuits; and actively participating in a “community of resistance” that embodies an alternative story and seeks to serve the vulnerable rather than to emulate the powerful.
What practices can we adopt to further this Biblical attitude toward wealth? Is it even right for Christians to strive to be financially secure?
Kenman Wong is a Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of three books, most recently (with Scott Rae) “Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace.”
This article was originally published at ThinkChristian.net.
There’s something special about small-town communities. Everybody knows your name; everybody knows your business. Although such an intrusion of “personal space” carries negative influences such as gossip, it also is profoundly supportive as the community surrounds those in trouble, shares items as needs arise, and works together for the common good.
Interestingly, residing near a metropolitan center such as Seattle limits this kind of community. As a population “advances”, the necessity of human relationship retreats. Nothing symbolizes this turn of events better than an urban apartment, a place my wife and I call “home”.
Characterized by tenants who often view their living situation in temporary terms, an apartment exists, first and foremost, as a place to situate a bed and, secondly, as a storage unit for other collectibles. A neighbor’s perceived value resides in his or her threat of personal annoyance or inconvenience. A noisy neighbor is disliked; a quiet neighbor is out of mind, out of sight, and to be enjoyed. What is certain is that a neighbor should be trusted only after plenty of time and interaction. While small-town communities are defined by the principles of sharing and mutual relationship, urban centers often create lone wolves, even when close proximity invites otherwise. Density breeds distrust.
Amongst the deteriorating mores of urban society, a new business model has arisen – one that operates on the sense of sharing and community. Zipcar (which just went public and is enjoying market success) is a good example.
Founded in 2000, the company provides automobiles through a membership-based car sharing service. Located in urban areas throughout the United States and the UK, Zipcar targets highly populated areas where residents typically don’t need an everyday auto. Since Zipcar pays for gas, insurance, maintenance, and parking, members save a notable amount of money in comparison with owning a car. In fact, members are only financially responsible for the hours they have reserved.
Obviously, the idea behind car sharing contains both personal and communal motivations. At the personal level, such a service is cheaper than owning an automobile if the customer lives, works, and plays within the vicinity of his or her residence. Likewise, car sharing carries communal motivations because it reminds us of the concept of sharing and using items only when necessary, not in excess.
In fact, Zipcar maintains a steep fee for returning a car late because the next person potentially needs the car immediately. In this way Zipcar inserts the virtue of mutual respect and extols community, as the penalty reminds customers that other people have needs as well. You are not the center of the universe; someone else has an important appointment to keep or an errand to run.
Hearing Zipcar’s story encourages me to imagine how this community-based business model could work in other areas of the marketplace. Of course, Netflix and Gamefly have successfully operated under this rental model, but could this way of doing business succeed in larger ways? Are there opportunities to share computers, cell phones, mp3s, and other products and services? More importantly, could the Zipcar model contribute to a strengthening of community in our urban core? Could it create a culture that reminds us of the value of human relationship? Could it help us think differently about our neighbor down the hall or the familiar strangers we pass by each day? What do you think?
Donovan Richards is the graduate assistant for the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University.