Tom Matlack reflects on the world buzzing around him and wonders why there is the seemingly unquenchable thirst for “more”.
“I’m worth ten billion dollars,” Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, recently announced. The heroes of our time are not our greatest artists, teachers, humanitarians, or thinkers; instead, they are people like Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Ballmer. According to our strange calculus, it’s more important to own a pro sports team than it is to cure a fatal disease. Our country has developed a perverse set of values. We’ve narrowed our focus down to the monomaniacal accumulation of wealth for the few, rather than the wellbeing of the masses, all the while deluding ourselves into believing that we have a shot at being one of the chosen few—if we just play our cards right.
How can this be? It makes no sense.
I’ve struggled with the concept of “enough” my whole life. I’m an addict. When it comes to exercise, food, booze, success, or cigars, I have what feels like an unquenchable thirst. It’s this same thirst that’s landed me in more than one tight spot, even bringing me inches from certain death and causing the kind of soul sickness that doctors have diagnosed as clinical depression. Thankfully, with age, my addictive personality has mellowed. I haven’t had a drink in over 18 years. A loving wife, three amazing kids, and a huge, endlessly loyal bernese mountain dog named Zeus—all of which are more than I deserve, given my track record of mayhem—allow me to take my foot off the accelerator when necessary and attempt to lead a balanced life. I’ve also had the benefit of good education, plenty of money, and the privilege that comes with being a white, heterosexual male in a world that favors those attributes.
These days, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the world buzzing around me. In American society, I see the same unquenchable thirst that I’ve personally experienced, but on a far larger scale. As an addict, my greatest strength—and weakness—is the ability to focus on the object of my desire to the exclusion of everything else. Particularly in sports and finance, that focus allowed me to achieve well beyond my God-given abilities. However, those successes always proved hollow, existing in isolation without broader context or meaning. It turns out that the top of the mountain isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: win the race, close the deal, and then what? Finding meaning, it turns out, requires getting off the hamster wheel, whether you’re an alcoholic or a society addicted to money.
The hardest concept for any addict to internalize is that of “enough”: enough food, enough money, enough booze. How do we as a society shift our focus away from a never-ending pursuit of more wealth to a concept of “enough” money? Material aspiration and well-being form the core of a capitalist system and thus we can’t completely abstain from these things like a sober alcoholic. Yet, I would argue that material wealth can and should be merely a building block for a wealth of ideas, of compassion and education, of endeavors that connect us as human beings rather than separate us into the haves and the have-nots.
One of the best treatments for persistent addiction is to help others who suffer from the same problem. Over time, addicts with a heightened sense of awareness about their peers’ struggles are forced to reflect on their own poisonous traits. In AA, it’s called being a “sponsor.” Maybe we need to assign everyone a wealth addiction sponsor to force ourselves to actually look in the mirror. If every hedge fund manager had to spend a day in prison mentoring a young African American man, perhaps it would change their perspective.
Our capitalist system was founded on the American Dream, which promises that everyone will be afforded the chance to rise up through hard work and determination. That promise has been broken repeatedly in our two-tiered education system, in the mass incarceration of minorities, and in the near-certainty that a child born into poverty will wind up a poor adult.
Nonetheless, the 0.001% are deified. We all dream about winning in the money game, even though virtually none of us will—especially those who have the deck stacked against them. That dream, however, is a hollow one. The grotesquely wealthy people I’ve met are generally less happy than your average Joe is, and there’s a growing body of research showing that wealth correlates to happiness only to the point at which the basic needs of food, shelter, and security are met. Beyond that point, the relationship between happiness and wealth flattens out and other things become far more important, like the quality of one’s relationships, health, and the non-financial rewards of work life. Yet when it comes to money, the concept of “enough” is nowhere to be found in our culture. We are addicts looking for our next hit of Benjamins, even if it costs us everything.
A basic premise of addiction theory is that the patient has to acknowledge his or her own illness before any progress can be made. Addicts often have to endure incredible suffering before they hit rock bottom; at that point, they may finally break free from their denial about their repetitive and destructive actions and their constant expectation of something other than catastrophic results. The first step toward a healthier life is for an alcoholic to get outside the cycle of drinking long enough to see the reality of his or her situation and the power of addiction. I’d like to believe that we as a country are getting closer to, rather than farther away from, our collective rock bottom in our addiction to wealth.
I’ve tried to help many alcoholics over the years, and at the end of the day, I understand quite clearly that my power over other people’s addictions is nil. All I can do is pray, thank God for my family, and focus on keeping my own addictive personality at least partially in check. And keep offering help to others even if their addiction is stronger than I am. I never know when reaching out will make all the difference in the world.
At some point we have to shift our collective focus from staggering wealth for the few to having enough for the many, from individual wealth as the goal to achievements in the arts and sciences and to education and humanitarianism that lift up the human spirit as a whole.
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Photo: Derrick Tyson / Flickr