Does having more make us happier? Or does it just make us want more? As Ed Begley Jr. says in our new book, Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World: “If stuff made us happy there would be nothing but happy people living in Bell Air and unhappy people living in Fiji where they have nothing, but I have been to Fiji and there are plenty of happy people there. I have never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top!”
We were having tea with our good friend Marc Barasch, and discussing the relationship of wealth to alturism. He is the author of many books, but his latest, The Compassionate Life, got us questioning whether a lack of money or a failing economy, such as during a recession, makes us more selfish and self-centered. Marc suggested we reverse the question: “Perhaps we should be asking: Are people really compassionate in a so-called successful economy? Does affluence make us any kinder or more caring?”
We tend to think that as the rich have a cushier life they have more to give, but Jungian psychologist Bernice Hill has identified four wounds of wealth, or four challenges that come from having a lot of money. They are:
1. Burdens of Expectation. People with money are the often subject of envy and jealousy. They are also expected to support charities and donate frequently. Which can result in them asking if it is them or their money that is wanted?
2. Isolation. For fear of being taken advantage of, the wealthy may question what their friendships are based on. This can lead to a real sense of isolation and lack of trust, and the tendency to only socialize with others who also have money.
3. Unhealthy Family Dynamics. Money easily destroys relationships and families, as family members fight for the lion’s share.
4. Crisis of Identity. Wealthy people often have difficulties with issues of self-worth, guilt, and meaninglessness.
These four challenges imply to us how complicated and limiting wealth can be. While compassion tends to arise from a sense of vulnerability, success often comes with a sense of invulnerability. There is the belief that, if we are well-off materially, then God must be favoring us, we must be virtuous and moral; whereas if we are poor, then God has abandoned us, we must have done something wrong, we are obviously immoral and flawed.
Yet, when we have nothing to lose we are not guarded or fearful of being taken advantage of. As such, the poor are often far more generous, willing to share, and caring of each other than are the wealthy.
Whenever we have traveled in India, Deb has always been impressed that even the poorest of the poor have fresh flowers in their hair, they are welcoming and sharing of what they have, guests get the best dishes and food, even the best bed. This is far more hospitable than our wealthy friends who, for instance, when asked if we could stay, say they have a dinner party coming up and so it would be too inconvenient.
Compassion also arises out of a sense of shared humanity–the realization that we are all connected to everyone and everything at all times, that we are not isolated or separate. What happens to one happens to all. With this awareness we can take off our armor and allow ourselves to be touched and to feel the undefended heart. The barriers between us dissolve.
If we relate to the recession or poverty with fear, then it will close us down further, locking us into a place of isolation. If we relate to those same difficulties with an open heart, then we will enter into a culture of greater sharing and compassion. Our economy is built on greed and a fear of scarcity. But we can transcend these by reaching out to each other in acts of kindness and caring.