Creating Unhealthy Desires
By Charles Rush
November 26, 2006
Matthew 7: 7-11
was shrunk into a village of just 100 people –With all the human ratios
existing in the world still remaining –What would this tiny, diverse village
look like? That’s exactly what Philip M. Hater, a medical doctor at the
Stanford University School of Medicine, attempted to figure out. This is what he found.
57 would be Asian
21 would be European
14 would be from the Western Hemisphere
8 would be African
70 would be non-white
30 would be white
70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian
6 would possess 59 percent of the entire world’s wealth, and all
6 would be from the United States
80 would live in substandard
70 would be unable to read
50 would suffer from malnutrition
1 would be near death
1 would be pregnant
1 would have a college education
1 would own a computer
you need some help counting your blessings, this is the deal. If you live in a
good home, have plenty to eat and can read, you are a member of a very select
if you have a good house, food, can read and have a computer, you are among the
very elite. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are
more fortunate than the million who will not survive this week.
"If you have never experienced the danger of
battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of
starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
"If you can attend a religious gathering without
fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are fortunate; more than 3
billion people in the world can’t do that".
Despite the rather wide literature that
bears out the maxim that Money can't buy happiness, my generation is always a
bit perplexed that it can't do more than it can. That is probably because,
shortly after we dropped the idea of following the Grateful Dead around the
country for the rest of our lives, a whole bunch of us went to law school and
business school and made a rather deep investment in money and power. It was
shortly after we finished B school that one of us developed that T-Shirt for
the late 80's and early 90's that read, 'He who collects the most toys wins'.
That fairly well summed the first half of our adult life, until September 11th
which caused a momentary but significant re-evaluation of this mission
Curiously, when our basic needs are
met- and our basic needs are food, shelter, and clothing- the majority of the
people polled in the world report that they are 'pretty happy'.
It turns out that there are other factors that make you actually happy besides
standard of living- things like political freedom, literacy, civil rights,
spiritual development and creativity. If these other factors are absent, income
alone can not make up the difference.
Furthermore, in our advanced industrial
countries, there is no simple correlation between income and 'well being'.
Japan and West Germany, on the whole have a higher standard of living than
Ireland, but the Irish report a higher percentage of happy people.
Likewise, you may be interested to know
that when researchers interviewed the list of the wealthiest people in the
world (from the Forbes 100 list), they found that they were only slightly
happier than an average American.
And this you might find interesting and
obvious, research on people who win the lotto and get those huge payouts, on
average they experience about 8 weeks of elation and then report that they
return to pretty much the same place that they were before they came into all
The fact is, and you know this, that
almost half of the conditions that define your sense of contentedness are
beyond your control. They have to do with your personality is shaped by the
genes you inherit and other factors like health.
But here is one piece of research most
all of us will understand. If you ask the question, "How much money would
you need to be happy?" the answers change the more successful you are.
Working class Americans, those that make $30.000 a year say $50k would do the
trick. But if you ask someone making $100,000 they most often answer $250,000.
The more you have, the more you think you need. Researchers have not ferreted
out why this is the case but the educated speculation revolves around giving
our children 'the best' that we can. Parents have an expanding definition of
the best as they are able to provide more of it. Not only college, but private
college, then also prep school, then camps, then world travel and other
fulfilling experiences. Working class people don't think these possibilities
are in the realm of their ability, and so don't covet them like Upper middle
class people do. I suspect that accounts for a good deal of it indeed.
As a minister, I periodically feel the
need to raise this broad issue for us to reflect on because we continue to live
a higher standard of living each decade. Most of us engage in activities every
year that our grandparents wouldn't have believed possible. And yet, we also
live in a world where our children experience wider incidence of anxiety
disorders, eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and other
self-damaging behaviors. At long last, there is some consensus beginning to
develop that shows how these might be related.
You may recall Maslow's hierarchy of
needs from psychology 101 in college. The basic ones I've already mentioned
food, shelter, clothing, are matched by 'higher-order' needs that are still
fundamental- authentic self-expression, intimacy in relationships,
contributions to the community, and a sense of being able to master challenging
I would add to those, the need for moral development, thinking of the work of
Lawrence Kohlberg. And also, the importance of spiritual development of meaning
and purpose in our lives. What we are hoping for in our children is a rounded
development of all these areas because it is in this rounded sense that we can
find 'contendedness', what Aristotle called Eudameon, a 'good life',
a life worth living.
The challenge in an ever-increasing
culture of affluence is to make sure that affluence promotes personal growth
rather than retard it. Anyone who has read history at all knows that this has
been a perpetual challenge since the rise of civilization itself.
I know when I was in graduate school,
our professor made us translate Latin letters from College boys to their
fathers. He had to pick out material that had never been translated knowing
what devious cheats grad students can be. In the height of Republican Rome, the
best education was had in Alexandria in Egypt, so that is where the best and
the brightest were sent. So many of letters from Joe College to Dad 2200 years
ago went something like this. "My dearest Father", and there would
follow a lengthy description of studies and sports… and towards the end there
would be a plea to the bank of Dad that many of you will recognize… "My
friend Marcellus has a new chariot complete with bronze plating and I am still
getting by with my aging wheels. How it gauls me when he rides up full of
himself and his beauty. If I am to be a competitor with him, I must have…" On and on it goes. Clearly these
pleas worked on Roman fathers because there are so many of this genre.
Our professor had us focus on this material because
these students were more focused on being elite than they were excellent. They
only wanted the perq's and were willing to become quisling sychophants in order
to get them and keep them. What occupied most of their internal psychic energy
was burnishing their image of exclusivity. Under their leadership, the great
Republic became a decadent Empire and Rome, which was thought to be eternal,
I found it helpful to read these
letters and the Mediations of Marcus Aurelius at the same time. Aurelius was a
Stoic, a profound and spiritually centered man. He led the Roman Army and then
was Emperor, the most powerful man in the world, surrounded by these same sons
now adults, who were only motivated by power and privilege. Marcus Aurelius
reflected deeply on the true nature of authority and accomplishment in this
environment. In order to do it, he found that he had to withdraw from this
world every day, to spend some time
writing and reflecting on the fleeting nature of his own life, to reflect on
what it was that he was about, to re-group on his life mission. He had to daily
step out of the material excesses that made Rome Rome and write and pray
because all of this ethos of perq's,
power, privilege, and ego simply so much distraction from his personal
Our professor had us reading these
things at a time when we were just beginning to see a change in our own culture
of education. You may know that UCLA has been interviewing students as they
enter college for the last 40 years and summarizing their findings. In the
sixties and early 70's the majority of students interviewed said they went to
college for one of two reasons, either in order to 'become an educated person' or to 'develop a
philosophy of life'.
By the 90's, a majority of
freshmen were answering that question by
saying they wanted to go to college in order to 'make a lot of money'. This answer was given far more often than 'becoming an authority in my field'
or 'helping others in difficulty.'
William Caskey, the former Dean of
Admissions at Brown University said, "I see many teens of means with few
interests or passions. Ironically, many are academically successful. Rarely,
though, is their success driven by a quest for knowledge. Rather, they tie academic achievement to an eventual
lifestyle of luxury."
I noticed this change when I was
teaching at Rutgers University and my colleagues in every department made the
same observation. It came from the frequency and intensity of a single question
raised by our students, the six words
that stop intellectual speculation dead in it's tracks. Those words are "Will
this be on the test?" Every generation, of course, wants to know
how to succeed. But you would be in the middle of speculation on some
historical matter or the meaning of life and someone would shout out, 'will
this be on the test?' You realize, they could care less, about St. Augustine..
It is so innervating, so ungracious and uncouth, and so unsubtle.
The growth of materialism in our
culture is only in degrees, but it is also significant. Materialism is an
over-focus on prestige and status, on acquisition and a sense of competition
where one person loses so another can win, an over-focus on the perquisites
that accrue to the individual rather than a sense of accomplishment that comes
through group effort. All of this, by the way, has been detailed for us
conveniently in the series of articles in the last few months on restructuring
incentives for hedge fund managers. This is the broad background ethos that we
live in and raise our children in. We must structure it and put some controls
on it because there is a body of evidence just beginning to emerge shows how we
are actually creating spiritually enfeebled children unwittingly.
Madeline Levine describes one patient
that she saw in therapy that is indicative of this trend. Young Allison, aged
16, was brought for therapy by her parents without any particular problem but a
sense that perhaps she was 'too dependent' on them.
When asked about this, her parents
explained that she was a fine child, not angry or challenging, but that, since
they were both employed in rather consuming jobs, they had found it easier to
manage Allison's life or outsource most of the details of her life, leaving
Allison with the responsibility largely of having to make good grades in school
and excel in sports.
They reported that she was she seemed a
little down, but not really depressed and her mother offered that she was
perked up quite a bit after they spent some time shopping together. When
pressed about this, Allison's mother admitted that quite a few of the items she
had purchased on these trips hung in the closet unworn and her mother was
perplexed by that.
The therapist noted that on one level
Allison was kind of a dream child and a dream patient. She never missed an
appointment. She was responsive and asked the therapist for her opinion of lots
of things from what AP courses she should take to how she should dress.
But after a protracted period of time,
the therapist noticed that Allison stayed always on clothes, cars, and
vacations, she never shared anything interesting or important about her
internal self, her sense of her self, her problematic relationships.
The therapist had this to conclude.
"Allison's identity was conferred entirely by the things she owned and the
people around her. She never struggled with the core issue of adolescence;
autonomy. She was a child whose sense of self was crafted by the outside world,
by those she worked so hard to please and charm."
therapist was missing that sense of 'defining, re-defining, and fine-tuning'
that makes teenagers adolescents. On the one hand, she was an easy child. But
on the other hand, she was an insubstantial child.
Again, the therapists conclusion,
"Trying to downplay Allison's superficial, facile exterior and find 'the
real' Allison was difficult not because Allison was 'hiding' her real self, but
because there was very little self-development behind the façade. Allison's
whole life had been defined by well-meaning parents, relatives, and teachers,
robbing Allison of the opportunity to think about what she wanted for
This is subtle but significant. It is
not affluence as such, it is rather the way that we use money and perq's as
external motivation in such a way that they diminish the interpersonal
self-development that has to take place on the path from childhood to maturity.
And, of course, one of the main reasons that we rely on those motivators is
that we live that way ourselves.
The one example this therapist singles
out, presumably because she has seen it used with increasing frequency, is the
bargain parents strike with teens, 'do this or don't do that and I'll buy you
X.' There are two problems with this approach she reports. First, it doesn't
work. You can alter short-term behavior that way and never long-term change
using this method. Second, it actually makes children spiritually and
What they need is to become internally
strong in order to develop 'independence, self-control, and the ability to
disregard (unhealthy) peer pressure'
At precisely that moment, we are confusing them by getting them to focus on external
rewards. So what typically happens is that they have little appreciation for
whatever it is that they have just gotten- they either take it for granted or
if they are angry, they can show remarkable disregard for the car you just
bought them. And, your actual authority as a parent depreciates in the process
producing frustration between you and your spouse.
Unwittingly, we are actually creating
spiritually and emotionally truncated people this way. This is why the
materialistic ethos that permeates our culture has to be corralled and
contained. Without a bit in it's mouth, this horse will stampede where we don't
want to go.
We want our children to think for
themselves, to manage relationships with others and to be intimate and
responsible. We want them to develop their own sense of meaning and joy in
living. We want them to know right from wrong and act on it because that is
what they want to do. We want them, in short, to have 'soul strength', to have
a developed interior life. And our job, as parents, is to give them
opportunities to grow and develop that 'soul strength', to be introspective, to
risk, to fail and learn from those failures. Ultimately, what we want are children
with character. Without character, money and power are just a ruinous danger.
With character, money and power are inconsequential. They are not intrinsic
Saint Paul was more right, I suspect,
than he realized. Soul strength is the precursor for fulfillment, not
privilege. Paul said, 'Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, patience, and
an honest and accurate appraisal of yourself and those around you. Forgive as
God forgives you. Above all, put on love which binds the whole of life in perfect
harmony. Let peace rule in your hearts. And cultivate a life of gratitude… Come
together and remind each other of this with sermons and songs and study.'
Tomorrow, you enter again our wider
culture of materialism. As you do, remember the words of Sergeant Phil
Esterhaus, as he sent the patrolmen out into the streets each morning on 'Hill
Street Blues'… Hey, hey, hey…. Let's be careful out there. Amen
 This was
sent to me from an employee of Citigroup on the Internet. I am simply presuming
that it is roughly accurate.
 What follows
relies heavily on chapter 3 of Madeline Levine's recent book The Price of
Privilege (San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 2006). The Chapter is 'Why Money
Doesn't Buy Mental Health'. I am essentially summarizing her material here.
 Levine, on
p. 48 and it is a helpful shorthand
 ibid. p. 47.
 Ibid. p. 56.
 Ibid. p. 43/
 ibid. p. 44.
 Ibid. p. 55
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