Ch 14: A Surfeit of Wealth

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.
And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
– The 14th Dalai Lama

What will be enough? When will Americans be happy with the wealth they already have? When will they decide to share with others; to give back some of the bounty we have received or taken?

The United States is currently running on autopilot. We have a system called corporate capitalism where businesses are owned by stockholders or mutual funds which insulate the owner from the business and the only criterion in running a business is return-on-investment – profit. I own stock. My stock is managed by a broker. The broker invests in industries which have shown profit in the past. These industries are supervised by professional directors and professional managers who are tasked with maintaining that profit and increasing it if possible.

This has given rise to a number of excesses.

The first excess is excessive wealth. Billionaires do not need billions of dollars in assets. They don’t need a second personal jet aircraft or a third home or the staggering income. When this money comes from suffering in the Third World and hardship for ordinary taxpayers and servicemen, the benefits of taking more than one needs do not amount to much while the price of these profits starts with the suffering of others and sooner or later comes back home to roost in suffering of our friends and family, of a less safe world where freedoms are lost to terrorism and senseless violence.

The second excess is continual warfare. Since war is far more profitable than peace – at least for the wealthy and for the short term – we are constantly threatening war, engaged in war, or otherwise using violence to force the rest of the world to help us make bigger and bigger profits.

The third excess is ruining our environment and squandering our irreplaceable resources.

When I occasionally indulge in watching our news and politics, it seems like we are getting less happy, less satisfied, less secure, and less trusting of others. It seems like we’ve managed to convince ourselves that things are bad and getting worse.

How is this delusion possible? How can we miss the unprecedented penultimate moment when ordinary men have achieved luxury and ease?

I am a middle-class American and I live in a luxurious lifestyle unprecedented in history!

I have my own bathroom which has indoor plumbing which runs hot and cold water any time I want and in proportions I choose and I don’t have to go to an outhouse or into a chamber pot; my toilet flushes everything away completely and without residual odor. The smells are pleasant.

I am cool in summer and warm in winter – both in my home and in my “horseless carriage.” My bed has a pillow-top mattress which is unbelievably comfortable. At night, I flick a switch and my home lights up as bright as I want without heat or smoke. I am extremely comfortable. Yet I take this exceptional comfort for granted. I hardly ever think about it.

I am educated. At public expense, I attended elementary and high schools which provided a first-class basic education. I learned to master the English language and the rudiments of two other languages. I learned to read music, to play a musical instrument and to sing – all at public expense, an experience open to any other child in my community with the talent and the will to participate. I mastered mathematics, physics, and chemistry in school; a luxury available to all but not necessarily valued. I learned to type in high school, a skill which has been a constant and continuing benefit. I also learned to drive a car in high school.

I went to several colleges and continued to learn, partially at my own expense and partially with scholarships and no-interest and low-interest loans. It was a luxury unheard of five or six centuries ago.

I have the internet, which continues to provide an enormous amount of information at my beck and call; an education which is virtually free and almost unlimited.

I have clothing which is warm and comfortable and, at times, even stylish.

And I have health and healthcare.

In all of these things, I am blessed beyond measure. Kings and Emperors six centuries ago might have had more money or power, but they had food tasters to protect themselves from close relatives who might poison them. Their “doctors” bled them or chanted spells or guessed at what was wrong and what to do about it. Their “education” was rudimentary and often wrong. Their castle was drafty, smelly and poorly lit. Their carriage was hot, dusty, and unpleasant. Their clothing might have been thought stylish and impressive, but it was often uncomfortable. Warriors had to endure armor and the heat and weight of carrying it.

We Americans are being taught each and every day that we don’t have enough; that we need newer and more stylish apparel, designer drugs to enhance our sex lives, and fast food and a premium toy to make our children happy.

If we look back at history, if we see ourselves in perspective, the conclusion is inescapable: science has taken us to a place of unprecedented ease and luxury. And this luxury is available to almost all of us.

Yet we imagine ourselves poor and wanting. We feel that our automobile isn’t stylish enough, that we need bigger and better entertainment systems to while away our spare time, that simple fare isn’t enough, but we must go out to eat or order prepared food delivered to our door. And we crave more and more and more. We crave cigarettes and booze and pornography to fill our empty and somewhat listless lives.

Self-indulgence makes the advertisers pleased with themselves. It makes money for the already wealthy who are in it, not because of need but because of a competition with other wealthy people to have a greater surfeit of wealth than others. Of course, there is only one ultimate winner in this stupid game of one-up-man-ship and a lot of “losers,” but the game sustains itself and many of us ordinarily wealthy people are so desperate to join the excessive wealth game that we wager on lotteries knowing that our chances are slim.

Self-indulgence works for a few hours. Then the dissatisfaction returns, the feeling that something is missing. The more we indulge ourselves, the greater this dissatisfaction.

I know what that missing something is. It is compassion. After reading the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, I realized that he was right; that we make our lives happy and meaningful by serving others, by working for the common good.

This is how Twelve Step Meetings work. The self-indulgent person stays sober by being of service to others. This service gives our lives meaning, substance, and dignity; those things robbed from us by addiction.

Please understand that our society IS addicted.

We send our armies overseas to keep us “safe” when it is a proven fact that we’d be safer if they stayed home. The more power we exert over others, the less secure we are. Furthermore, the violence we export always returns in the next couple of generations. I see the results of our violent attacks on Vietnamese farmers here at home in my grandchildren.

We are addicted to the idea that Americans are superior; that we aren’t just equal to other nations but that we are the most powerful and, by some undisclosed reasoning, the most deserving, the “best”, the only ones who love “freedom.” Yet we don’t love freedom at all. All over the world, we squelch freedom and install our own puppet governments. We believe somehow that it is a choice between our freedom or their freedom when it has always been both our freedom and theirs or neither.

Let me say this in a few other ways. To have freedom, we must free others. When we work against the free choice of others, we eventually work against our own free choice. To have a Bill of Rights, we must enforce those constraints on ourselves when others such as socialists or communists or reactionaries say something we disagree with. Freedom isn’t something you win in wars. It is something you win through careful and diligent permissions and prohibitions, by setting boundaries where they belong. To extend our liberties past those boundaries is to attempt to diminish the liberties of others which eventually provokes an antagonistic response which penetrates our own original boundaries.

Some examples might help.

When we had a segregated South a mere fifty years ago, Blacks could only walk on one sidewalk. But whites could only walk on the other. Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, but whites only sat in the front. Neither side could be friends with the other except in a very stilted and formal way. If you had two employees and one was eager and the other lazy, you might have to promote the lazy one because of his race. Freedom on both sides was diminished by racial discrimination.

Another way to look at this is to walk out your front door, down the street and around the block. The more freedom you’ve offered your neighbors, the more free you will feel. If you’ve been feuding, you will feel apprehensive, which means you aren’t as free. Having lawyers or policemen won’t help this at all. Carrying a firearm won’t really work, either. But live-and-let-live will help. Being humble will help. Treating your neighbors with respect and dignity will help YOU feel safe and secure. The same thing applies to nations.

So I say again, when will enough be enough?

When will we decide it is time to share the bounty we’ve taken for centuries; to give something back to the people we’ve abused? When will we share our freedom with others around the globe by respecting their rights and prerogatives? When will we do to other nations as we would have them do to us?

I believe that this is already overdue. It should have happened toward the end of the last century, when we were declaring ourselves part of the “great society” and working together to send men to the moon and to look at the distant universe through an undistorted telescope in space. It should have started with the Peace Corps and kept expanding to include the Army Corps of Engineers building infrastructure in the Third World. It should have included more Mid East Peace Treaties as well as S.A.L.T. III and S.A.L.T. IV.

Instead, we’ve been exporting automatic weapons, anti-personnel mines, and tons of ammunition. We’ve been encouraging bickering whenever possible and working against peace, prosperity and freedom throughout the Third World at every opportunity.

And we’ve been seriously bickering amongst ourselves as well.

It seems that the wealthy don’t want to share. They don’t need the money, but they’re addicted to the power (or the illusion of power) that it represents. They have found a way to buy our votes and suborn our loyalty. All they have to do is keep us fearful; to continue to discover or manufacture threats that keep us distracted from their avarice and dishonesty.

Currently we are sending our troops to the Middle East. There, they will, as they have for almost a century, create resentments which will, in turn, lead to newer and more violent acts of terrorism against us. During this century of our occupation of the Middle East, not once have we created any “freedom” or “democracy” unless you think the racist state of Israel counts; where both original Palestinians and immigrant Israelis live in constant fear and discord.

I think we need to reconsider Jimmy Carter’s solution. We must again broker peace in the world rather than war. If our goal is a viable legacy for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we must give up a bit of short-term profit and look at things from a substantive, long-term perspective.

We can, of course, continue as we have, but we will reap what we have sown: violence and discord.

Or we can actually promote freedom which means promoting peace and prosperity and sharing it wherever and whenever possible.

We need a Peace Corps more robust and powerful than our misnamed “Defense Department.” We need to invest in world prosperity to protect our own prosperity. We might even give up scamming the world for more short-term profit.

By empowering and protecting the rights of others, we may find a more noble purpose to our lives; a higher calling for our nation; a new freedom for everyone and a new happiness as well. We might even discover safety, contentment, and the luxury of what we already have rather than always being dissatisfied and continually lusting for newer and better stuff to fill our empty and meaningless lives.

©David N. Dodson, Phoenix, AZ March, 2016

==>Ch 15: Quotes about Religion

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