How Pursuing Wealth for Happiness and Security Assures Having Neither
The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out at the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!
Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Show Me The Money!
Is it true that anyone living in America can get rich? A popular myth* promoted in everything from best-selling books to TV sitcoms says that it is. We are told that America is the land of endless opportunity, and anyone who works hard can come out of the jungle rich. There is even the suggestion by some that refusing the call to passionately pursue wealth is un-American.
The reality, however, is quite different. The promise of untold wealth – and the personal power that supposedly comes with it – is dangled like a carrot on a stick, enticing the aspiring rich to keep focused on reaching for something the already rich know full well is forever beyond their grasp. The myth, therefore, is part of an elaborate deception, a con.
While it’s true that many people do rise above humble beginnings to attain a degree of wealth and social standing, it is not at the same level as the few who inhabit the mountain top. It’s known that even among the rich there is a wealth hierarchy, as evidenced by the disdain “old” money displays for “new” money.
The success and endurance of the myth and its associated con is based on embedding the idea that all one needs to be happy is lots of money. And while people will sometimes pay lip service to this not actually being true, no one actually buys into the transparent denial. And how can they in a culture that lusts after lifestyles of the rich and famous, and values wealth above all else?
Ironically, the Declaration of Independence originally contained the phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of wealth”. Why then was “happiness” substituted instead? Coulld it be the founders had a flash of insight, recognizing that while happiness could include wealth, it didn’t exclude other definitions? It’s unfortunate that for many, the original sentiment remains the only meaning.
Oh, Those Fatal Flaws
But upon even just a cursory inspection, three fundamental flaws underpinning the scheme are exposed. First, the numbers themselves reveal that relatively few can ever actually achieve great wealth (apart from the fact that by global standards the average American is very well off). Most Americans have become aware of the 1/99 ratio of rich to not rich that represents the stark reality.
Second, not everyone is driven to become monetarily rich. As previously pointed out, there are those who have an entirely different definition of wealth and seek riches in other forms, such as art, knowledge, discovery, promoting a cause, the satisfaction of helping others, etc. Some even see earning money to live as a needless distraction from more important pursuits.
The third and most basic flaw in the myth gets to the very heart. There is a quote attributed to Author, David Mitchell: “Whoever dies with the most stuff wins”. Whether it’s stuff or money, this sums up the attitude of many regarding what they understand the purpose of existence to be. But why is that? Where is it written that the meaning of life is to become as rich as possible? On what stone? The Ten Commandments? The Bill of Rights? The Hollywood Walk of Fame?
Fact is, the closest we have to authoritative guidance on this issue comes from the world’s great wisdom traditions (religion and philosophy), and what they have to say directly contradicts the myth’s rationale. These traditions tell us that acquiring wealth is not the goal of human existence. Enlightened teachers from different times and cultures have emphasized this truth over and over. Along with iconic literary works, fine art and music, these wisdom traditions have cast light on the deepest needs and desires of the human soul.
What do they tell us? The quest for material wealth is a misdirected attempt to obtain the most basic of human needs: love and security. The myth suggests that the need for love and security can be satisfied by having lots of money. However, this is based on two mistaken beliefs. First, by itself, being wealthy may induce admiration in some and idol worship in others, but it doesn’t guarantee being genuinely loved by anyone. Second, it assumes that wealth can provide everything needed to live in safety and security.
A Simple Truth
What nullifies these beliefs is their looking to a source outside the self to provide that which only the self can do for itself. Any admiration that’s derived from status is only skin deep – and no amount of money can guarantee complete and total security.
The neurotic need that seeks approval from external sources is the result of not loving and accepting ourselves unconditionally, flaws and all. If we are not at peace with ourselves, no amount of fame or fortune is capable of filling the gaping hole.
Real security is an inner sense of well being which has nothing to do with external circumstances. The fear that lies behind an obsession with security is a subconscious fear, fueled by feelings of insecurity. Those feelings result from a false belief that by ourselves, we are not enough. From this comes the need to order and control the environment as a way to compensate for the feelings of inadequacy, and convince those around us that we have value (importance) as persons. We believe these feelings have to be hidden from view, lest the truth about not being worthy is seen by others. We can use a variety of methods to hide our insecurity, but covering it over with heaps of expensive and extravagant stuff appears to be the one preferred.
If we don’t understand that real security is found only as a by-product of complete and total self-acceptance – and the indomitable confidence in ourselves and the Universe that comes as a result – there isn’t a fortification in the world that can protect us from whatever fear we imagine. We may not be perfect, but we are enough! When this truth at last sinks in, the need to hide parts of ourselves from the world no longer exists, and that’s because we no longer believe anyone else’s opinion of us determines our value.
Author Mark Boyle experimented living for three years without money and reports the surprising effect it had:
More than anything else, I discovered that my security no longer lay in my bank account, but in the strength of my relationships with the people, plants and animals around me. My character replaced sterling as my currency . . . My moneyless economy was one in which helpfulness, generosity and solidarity were rewarded . . . I realised I was capable of more than I ever imagined.
This eloquently stated example points to another popular but erroneous belief – that money equals freedom. In fact, real freedom is being liberated from limiting beliefs that interfere with the ability to live a full life with love and joy – on one’s own terms. Real freedom is being secure in the ability to serenely meet life’s challenges with confidence and creativity.
In Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman, the play’s central character, is consumed by the quest to become rich. He accepts the myth, buys into the con, and is ultimately destroyed by his obsession. In the end, the ideal of wealth and social approval upon which he had based his life, eludes him. He then chooses to blame himself for his perceived failure, rather than accept the possibility that the real problem lie with the goal of his quest. If he only knew the real treasure was within himself. He had it all along. And so do we.
*”Myth” as used here is the popular, albeit, incorrect definition: an idea or story that is believed by many but which is not true. It is more correctly understood as a cultural construct which uses analogy and metaphor to express an otherwise inexpressible truth that arises from the supra-consciousness of individuals in a given society, and which is only accessible through intuition.