A New Prosperity
Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.
The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller. The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country. Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit. Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.
Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.
In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land. As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value. Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth. If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth. For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships. The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals. The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit.
As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans. John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy. Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft. Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us. A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface. We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.
My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative. Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country. He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world. He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest. During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion. Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome. “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?
This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia. Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold. In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India. However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.
“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity. I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned. I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members. In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities. What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused. He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world. “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. (I hate it when he does this to me. It ruins dessert)
But as usual, he gets me thinking. Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity? This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want. This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.
A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures. A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”. It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us. It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances. A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments. In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures. We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions.
We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear. A great society strives for these things for all its citizens. It is a time of opportunity and transformation. Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility. In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.
Now that’s what I call prosperity.