Stop Trying to Harvest Life’s Peak Moments – Centesimus Annus

From JP II’s Centesimus Annus: His 1991 Encyclical on the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, widely considered the first Church encyclical on social teachings:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.75 It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments. (36) ….

one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. (37)

I love this. I find in Catholic theology and thought a truly unique invitation to contemplate that which is truly good in life versus what things are the distractions.

I think in my own life I have often succumbed to the temptation to confuse having with being–ie if I have a cool outfit, I am cool. There’s no easy way to explain this because we don’t have a vocabulary for it.

But happiness and a good life are not different. Happiness is not a moment, not even a collection of peak moments. True happiness is a life well-lived, a life of dedicated work to people and ideas that matter. That sort of effort is itself the reward.

I hate the analogy of apple-picking, but it demonstrates so clearly. It’s fun to go pick apples in the late summer and early fall; I visit an orchard and spend an hour or less plucking the prettiest products of the branch. I bask in the sun and feel very pleased with myself for connecting with nature. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it remains a grab in the dark for a “peak moment,” those oh-so-perfect looking scenes in my head which will make me happy if I simply gather enough of them.

The real satisfaction is not in the serene, beautiful moment–because a moment is just a moment and it passes away immediately. Real satisfaction is in the dedication to the entire process of planting, nurturing, watching grow, weeding, pruning, watering and finally, yes, picking, cooking and preserving. Real satisfaction is in the authenticity of hard, honest work (of a variety of natures).

Consider mothering. The peak moments are my little girl’s first steps, her precious laugh, my toddler boy’s love of his birthday cake. But if I could swoop in and capture all the peak moments without the whole process of life, those moments would be empty. Those moments are meaningful because I have nursed them when they cried, laid beside a restless, sick infant, cleaned up the peanut butter, made a thousand bland lunches and calmed the tantrums. I could even miss the “peakest” of moments (though it’s nice to have them), such as the birthday parties and the first steps, and still find satisfaction and joy in my life as their mother because I would still be a part of that life-long process of dedication.

Consumption, materialistic consumerism, tries to trick us by offering the peak moments as though they can be seized or grasped without the whole-life process of dedication, work and sacrifice. “Want a perfect body? Buy this Vitamix Blender. A healthier you awaits.” As though the moment of enjoying one’s physical appearance in the mirror can be obtained by the $40.00 purchase alone. In reality, the blender likely delivers neither the happiness nor the perfect body. Only effort sustained over months towards the end goal of a healthy diet and body will bring us closer to our ideal–whether or not we have a Vitamix (no offense Vitamix).

And materialistic consumerism is also much nastier than that mere level of lying to us, the buyers. In a disordered emphasis on profit, corners are sometimes cut, people hurt in the process of production for excess. Now, there are certainly legitimate purpose of marketing–to put audiences in touch with something they might actually need. And those creating and selling products certainly do need to earn a living. And capitalistic enterprise can be engaged in well and virtuously.

Oh but how easily it morphs into false promises and misleading visions of happiness. This is why I love the quote above, John Paul II tells us that it is “necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth.”

Yes. Yes. This and only this is the hallmark of a good life and consequentially of true satisfaction and peace. Constantly grasping for happiness in new experiences, products and achievements is a race to nowhere. The only thing that matters is to seek the truth, to strive to live in accord with it, to contemplate beauty and goodness, and to love God and others…just like Christ taught.


Reasons Income Inequality Isn’t the Real Problem

[My posts on money seem to be striking a chord (though I surely write it better than I live it), but nonetheless, here is something I’ve been reflecting on in light of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and also from my readings in  A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne.]

The Occupy Movement was about righteous indignation at the loads of wealth hoarded by the top 1% of earners (or trust fund recipients) and the resulting disparity between those top haves the bottom 99% of have nots. It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to assert that it is unfair for so few people to have so much when so many people have so little.

The stereotypical (read somewhat satirized) conservative response is that huge wealth earners have legitimately earned their wealth and therefore deserve to keep it, society be damned. And there is something to that, though to ignorance the need of our fellow man is reprehensible.

But reality check time: It’s not really between the 99% and the 1%. It may be, if the stats are accurate, that 1% of people have 99% of America’s wealth, but it is not the case that 99% of America is impoverished or even lower middle class. I’m no sociologist, but there’s an upper 5%, 10% etc etc if we measure by standard of living rather than by percent of money owned.

The point is that wealth, as measured by standard of living or human flourishing, is about a lot more than money. In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne identifies 8 different types of resources, only one of which is financial:

1. Financial Resources – Having the money to purchase goods and services

2. Emotional Resources – Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices.

3. Mental Resources – Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.

4. Spiritual Resources – Believing in divine purpose and guidance.

5. Physical Resources – Having physical health and mobility

6.  Support Systems – Having friends, family, and back-up resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources.

7. Relationships & Role Models: Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior.

8. Knowledge of Hidden Rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group. (p. 9)

As becomes immediately obvious when reading this list, wealth is about a lot more than money. The middle and upper classes have a deep internal and social safety net that they can draw on even when money is tight. What Payne goes on to explain in the book is how lacking other resources besides money is a key component that makes breaking out of generational poverty so very difficult. The hard thing about reading this book is that it offers a window through which to view how dire the struggles of the impoverished really are. And there are no easy answers.

But one bright side also shines through: that having a good life is about a lot more than money. In fact, it’s possible to have a dignified, rooted, loving life without a ton of money–provided that we have the other resources around such as emotional resources, mental resources, spiritual, relational, etc.

I think this is a helpful reminder of what really matters. Walter White in Breaking Bad makes a fortune in drug money but squanders his other resources in the process. The result isn’t a good one.

One aspect of the Occupy Wallstreet movement and many of the other social justice statistics out there is the emphasis on where the wealth is, an easily measurable point: what percent of people hold how much. And it won’t be fair until everyone has the exact same amount–sort of like Communism.

And there is something to that. Money matters; it makes things easier; it is a powerful tool towards a decent life. So having a more even spread isn’t a bad idea. But I worry that this approach over emphasizes money at the expense of lifestyle and other resources.

John Paul II said in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.

In short, if we get too caught up in the money alone question, we tend to send the same bad message to both rich and poor people: only the amount of money that you have matters. How you live and how you spend don’t matter.

An article by Gisela Bernardes Solymos asks: “This brings us to the following questions: what promotes the awareness of who we are? How can we experience dignity again? How can we overcome poverty?”

Overcoming poverty is going to be about a lot more than money. It’s going to mean engagement on an individual, personal, emotional level. It’s going to mean offering those other, non-monetary resources to people who don’t have them. Helping people in need requires more than writing a check, more than a numbers comparison, it’s about seeing ourselves on the same plane as just humans in need of different things. Sometimes money can blind us to that human equality. I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus talks about money so much– “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24). He tells us to love our neighbors, who he defines pretty widely in the story of the Good Samaritan; He wants us to love one another as human beings no matter who has more or less earthly belongings or status.

I know I fall short here–a lot. I need a good deal of grace. But there is a converse to this that I do relate to and which I think needs to be emphasized as a counterpoint to Occupy type of reasoning: we don’t have to hate or blame rich people. We shouldn’t even be jealous of them. A person with a lot of money is just a person with different struggles. Money is money; people are people.

Are there moral pitfalls of a wealthy lifestyle? Undoubtedly. But a wealthy person can indeed help steward his or her wealth well for the sake of the betterment of the community; he or she might very well be poor-in-spirit and quite virtuous. And here I’ll turn to Downton Abbey, always a *classy* show, but it has a bit of serious content. One of the most endearing facets of Lord Grantham, the earl of the estate, is his genuine concern for his staff, his farmers and the townsfolk in general. He pays for his cook to have an eye operation she can’t afford. One of the biggest developments between Lord Grantham and Tom Branson, the left-leaning driver turned to son-in-law, is Tom’s gradual learning that all this wealth and estate aren’t mere unjust waste–Lord Grantham actually serves to steward the property and household for the sake of the very people who work it, not just for himself and his high-class daughters. Only someone who has a lot of resources is in a position to offer those resources to others.

Now, certainly not all wealthy people meet such a standard, but it is possible. As I’ve said elsewhere, it is possible and actually good for people to be equal and not be the same. We don’t have to all have the same things and live the same way or have the same amount of money in order to be equal or to live dignified, decent lives. The farmer and the Earl of Downton Abbey can both flourish in a meaningful way. My three-bedroom, one-story house is a lot less than some of my friends have and a lot more than some of them have. This needn’t be cause for awkwardness or embarrassment. Sometimes I need help; sometimes I can offer help.

So meeting the needs of the truly impoverished is about helping them get all their human needs met and bringing more factors into play than the checkbook alone. It’s a big task to help propel another soul up to the level of dignity and decency with so many complex structures in place; but at the same time, dignity and decency matter in a way that reminds us of our shared humanity, and if we can get everyone to that point, differences between country clubs and community parks fade into the background. (For instance, if we really saw each other as equally valuable, maybe the country club members might open it up to those who can’t afford it…)

The Purpose of Money; Metaphysics determines morality

A bit more here from a recent article I read from America Magazine, “Metaphysics and Money

Charity is not simply about making things better on earth. It has an evangelical content. The renunciation of wealth helps the poor, to be sure, but it also reveals something about the shape of the world God has made and how we might flourish in it.

Are the poor short-changed in this view? I do not think so. For the deeper question to be asked is, what funds our thirst for social justice in the first place? Helping the poor was not a virtue in Greco-Roman culture, nor is it esteemed by many libertarians—a philosophy that is alarmingly popular among the young. The sociologist Christian Smith has argued that the concern for the poor that is so prominent in the West had its origins in biblical religion. This raises an alarming possibility: absent the church’s metaphysical claims about wealth, will such concerns continue? Perhaps the story of the rich young man provides the necessary condition for the possibility of social justice.

The issue here is not how I can achieve greatness but what kind of world God has made. Only when we have grasped what type of world we live in can we figure out a strategy for flourishing in it. The teaching is more metaphysical than moral.

When Gary Anderson, the writer, points out that the Bible’s teaching about money is more metaphysical than moral, I wish he added that those two things (metaphysics and morals) are much more related than we tend to acknowledge. Metaphysics is about the nature of reality, the world and how it works. Morality is about how to live well–in a good way, not just having stuff. Morality then depends on metaphysics because in order to live well in reality, we need to understand the nature of the reality in which we live. Ie- how to be a good fish will be very different from how to be a good bird as their physical worlds are very different, though both good.

Here we can see the philosophical disaster of ignoring or assuming metaphysics. For instance, if we assume philosophical materialism (as is so common today), any approach to morality is necessarily incoherent for in a world of mere atoms, what is there to give any meaning (such as goodness or badness) beyond that. I suppose we can cast some blame on David Hume who claimed that it is illogical to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Unfortunately, I think the opposite, following the tradition of Aquinas and Aristotle that “ought” comes precisely from the “is.”

Christian metaphysics holds that the world is both physical and spiritual, a view which I think is born out by our experience. We all experience the spiritual nature of reality very concretely through our free will. Will and intellect are the spiritual activities that we can perform because we have souls, not just atoms.

As the article’s quotes discuss above, Christian metaphysics makes concern for the poor intelligible. It is sad to me that this is so ignored in some pockets of society.

The purpose of money, from a Christian perspective, is not just to hoard or to purchase leisure goods, but to secure the necessary essentials of a good life for oneself and others. Money is a means, not an end. No amount of dollars in the bank bring happiness or lasting security. As the author notes, security is paradoxically only achieved in the detachment from money and the attachment to other humans that comes from giving the money away.

This is why having a bit more or less than someone else needn’t be cause for embarrassment or awkwardness. We are just two people living life; if we have basic needs met and can help others meet their needs, it’s just numbers in the computer.