Many Americans with a 401(k) plan, a stock broker or a pension find themselves wondering of late whether their attempt to save or invest for retirement will actually bring them financial security or merely enrich those with whom they've entrusted their money.
Enron, Tyco and Worldcom once the darlings of Wall Street were recommended with fervor by stock analysts and financial gurus whose prophecies of prosperity turned to dust, along with billions of shareholder dollars.
Those and similar debacles led former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 2002, in testifying before Congress, to diagnose America's national illness as "infectious greed."
Whatever its manifestations may be, religious figures throughout history have acknowledged greed as one of the seven deadly sins most capable of securing a shallow spiritual outcome for its suitors. The irony of enriching one's pockets while simultaneously shriveling one's soul was perhaps best illustrated by Charles Dickens, whose classic, "A Christmas Carol," has given a name to the Scrooges of the world ever since.
Millions who will never step inside a Fortune 500 boardroom, frequent the country club or carry a Neiman Marcus card can wonder "How much is enough?" not only while looking to make ends meet but when moral questions about homelessness, world hunger and Third World debt arise. Not that money itself is evil. It is the unbridled quest for it above all else and the hoarding of it at the expense of others that has garnered moral condemnation through the ages.
Israel's god, addressing the refugees wandering in Sinai, ended his list of commandments with "Thou shalt not covet," proceeding to give a list of relationships and possessions subject to the law. Some translate covetousness as greed, while others would call it envy.
Buddha identified greed, hatred and delusion as impediments to righteous living, naming them "the three poisons," and Hindu teaching codifies a long list of vices including miserliness, pride and theft as originating with covetousness.
While Jesus assured his followers that the poor would ever be with us, his answer about how people with means should treat them didn't involve philosophizing about their lack of initiative. He warned against measuring who people are by what they have.
Yet the tendency to do just that, while elevating the status of wealth for its own sake, seems to have seeped deeply into the consciousness of some, not only on Wall Street, but possibly even on your street. Russell Belk, the N. Eldon Tanner Professor at the University of Utah School of Business, said materialism is not necessarily the same as greed but is a motivating force that ties into it. "At the highest levels of materialism, people believe that having things is the greatest source of pleasure and not having them is the greatest source of pain in life."
Yet studies show that, for those whose basic physiological needs have been met, acquiring material possessions does little to provide happiness. In Belk's research on materialism, he found materialistic people are possessive, ungenerous and tend to envy the possessions of others. He examined how strongly they agree or disagreed with several statements, including:
"I would rather buy something I need than borrow it from someone else."
"Renting or leasing a car is more appealing to me than owning one."
"I enjoy sharing what I have."
"It makes sense to buy a lawn mower with a neighbor and share it."
"I am bothered when I see people who buy anything they want."
"When friends have things I cannot afford, it bothers me."
"I don't seem to get what is coming to me."
In his book, "The High Price of Materialism," psychologist Tim Kasser examines what happens when the desire to attain wealth and accumulate possessions become the focus of people's lives. He cites a series of studies, including those by Belk, that all show people who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and possessions report lower levels of psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with them.
Kasser has come to the conclusion that materialism becomes a primary motivator for some "who have a history of not having their needs well met. Thus, one reason these values are associated with a low quality of life is that they are symptoms or signs that some need remains unfulfilled." In fact, he writes, materialism leads people "to organize their lives in ways that do a poor job of satisfying their needs, and thus contribute even more to people's misery."
Many, he said, "tend to watch a lot of television," comparing themselves and their lifestyles with the fantasy characters portrayed on TV, and feeling they come up short. "This dissatisfaction with the material realm of their lives 'spills over' into their overall sense of satisfaction with their entire life."
Such a mind-set reinforces the moral dangers inherent in avarice outlined by Catholic theologian/poet Thomas Merton's stark portrayal of one possessed of it: "I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take . . . therefore, you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something."
Or, in bumper-sticker lexicon, "He who dies with the most toys, wins."
Theologians simply ask just what it is that those collecting the toys are trying to win.
Philosophers, poets, authors and theologians have written about the Seven Deadly Sins lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy and pride and the damage that they do to the soul since the fourth century.
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