“How much of the ugly does it take to substitute for a lack of the beautiful? How many adventure films does it take to compensate for a lack of adventure? How many superhero movies must one watch, to compensate for the atrophied expression of one’s greatness? How much pornography to meet the need for intimacy? How much entertainment to substitute for missing play? It takes an infinite amount. That’s good news for economic growth, but bad news for the planet. Fortunately, our planet isn’t allowing much more of it, nor is our ravaged social fabric.” ~ Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Heart Knows Is Possible
Have you ever had an experience of true connection to another living being or with nature? Maybe you were taking a road trip on a beautiful road with your best friend, you had that perfect tune on the radio, and you shared your dreams together. Or maybe you were drifting through the forest alone but not really feeling alone at all – you felt “oneness” with the environment.
Think back to one of these moments in your life. Tell me, in that moment, did you want to go shopping? Did you have an appetite for junk food? Did you feel like “getting wasted?” Were you missing your favorite soap opera or sporting program? Did you feel like you were lacking any material possession whatsoever?
When I think back to these moments in my life, the only thing I wanted was for the moment to continue. I felt calm and content, full of gratitude simply for the experience of being alive. I had everything I needed in that moment – the loving attention of my friend, the gentle grounding of the sand between my toes, or the embrace of my dog after a long walk through the park. I was content and happy with all that I had, even if I didn’t have any money in my pocket. What I had was invaluable.
Let us pause for a moment now and think back to a different time in our lives – a time when we felt that we needed something – a new iPhone, those amazing $700 pair of shoes at Bloomingdales, maybe just “to get away.” How do you feel in these moments? Do you feel anything remotely resembling the feeling of true connection? If you are like me, you might feel like something is missing in your life, like there is a void within longing to be filled.
Modern consumer culture tells us the answer to that void is to buy something – anything. Advertisers know you are feeling that void because they promote that void. For decades, the Mad Men have been telling you that you aren’t good or happy enough and all you need to be happy is to buy their product. Perhaps one of these situations sounds familiar:
It is Friday night and you have a hot date. You are looking through your closet to find that perfect outfit except none of the two hundred different articles of clothing you own will suffice. It is either last year’s fashion, too big or small, the wrong color, whatever. So you head out to buy something new. You arrive at the store and feel excited because you know a safe connection will be made to a new object and you will feel good again.
Or maybe you’ve had a long day at work putting out fire after fire, dealing with all of your annoying co-workers, wishing you could escape it all. You get home and you are exhausted. Your spouse asks you about your day which, at this point, sounds way too much like your loud cubicle mate chatting with his girlfriend about their vacation plans on the phone all day. You just can’t take it anymore so you throw a fit, get in your car, and head to the nearest watering hole. There, you know, a connection with the whiskey will be made and you will feel good again.
Here, the root source of greed reveals itself. Whenever we feel disconnected from the world, we have a hunger for a connection – to anything. If this hunger is not satiated, it creates an emotional wound that festers. To protect that wound, we develop walls to keep people out because we are so fragile from years of not being heard that we don’t think we can survive another disappointment. “At least the material good won’t betray us,” we think. We don’t realize that the material goods do betray us by failing to deliver the intimate connection to another being we all long for. This is why you can have a hundred pairs of shoes and still feel like you need more. No material acquisition can substitute for the experience of true intimacy and connection. But they can provide moments of feeling connected. If one has enough financial means, it may even be possible to string enough of those moments together to be completely unaware of the true need for connection underneath.
You see, it may not seem like it to those on the outside but many wealthy people are suffering. Because they pay for everything, they have few people in their lives that are there because of a true connection. Their connections are bought and so they are never real.
Wealthy people also are not given permission to complain about anything. Society expects them to be perfectly happy and if they aren’t, they are judged harshly. You may even be judging me right now for offering empathy to them. This judgment makes finding experiences of true connection nearly impossible. Instead of connection, they are offered only conditional approval based upon acting or performing a certain way. They never get to live their authentic lives. In this circumstance, greed is nothing more than a futile attempt to relieve the very real pain of caused by a lack of real, authentic connection to the world.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” told the story of those who served the rich for money and they spoke of two faces — the face of subservience that doesn’t intimidate the people he serves, and their real face. We all need to interact with each other’s real face in order to experience true connection. One easy-but-not-so-easy thing anyone of us can do if we really want to reduce the amount of greed in the world is to show our real face to everyone we come into contact.
So when we see people acting greedy, let us not antagonize them even further by telling them that they are a horrible, uncaring human being that needs to be banished from the planet. Instead, if we really want to eradicate greed in the world, let us offer our sincere attention, compassion, kindness, and friendship to those who do not know what they need. Let us offer them an experience of true connection. These are gifts that can’t be purchased with money, yet they are essential for the true, lasting happiness of any human being. We must meet the real need underneath the greed.