Why should someone like me worry about the recession as much as I do? I didn’t have any money before it, and I won’t have any money after it. The housing it is now killing me to buy will cost less the next time I have to buy. I have more to gain than to lose.
For most of us, anxiety about the recession is misplaced. It is just more evidence of the way imitating the powerful harms us at the soul level. The people who have money have moved inside the rest of us and caused us to feel shabby because we don’t.
Despite the fact that I don’t respect rich people, I want nothing so much as to be just like them. I want to be what I disrespect. I am not unlike most Americans. We have been taught well that rich is better. What other reason can possibly be given for disproportionate tax structures? The rich need money more than we do. They need national flood insurance that requires all taxpayers to bail out those who enjoy second homes on ocean sites. We don’t have enough money for the homeless but we do have enough money to insure second homes.
Advertising is the engine of this favoritism. I can’t even ride a subway without having my greed reinforced. Surely a brand-name rice would make me feel better. It might even make me look richer.
Desire works in such a labyrinthine way that it would be hard to find the first knot it ties around our soul. Is it in grade school, as we dress like each other and declare “nerdy” anything that wasn’t bought yesterday? Do we parents tighten the noose of wealth by buying Christmas presents equal in sparkle to those of our children’s peers? Does the very commercialization of the Christ event bond us forever to the worship of wealth? Or is it the birthday party, which children associate with “what am I going to get?”
Money is everything to the generation coming of age in the nineties. I get a request for a wedding and all the questions are about costs. I am asked to do marital counseling of nonmembers and the first questions concern payment. If I do a baptism, somebody hands me an envelope. Do I remember these things happening all twenty years of my ministry? No. Am I glad to see all those envelopes? Yes. I have a daily feeling that I can hardly get by. Which is to say I live the anxiety of an internalized lie.
This generation already knows they don’t have enough money and that they will never have enough money. Middle-aged people like me are just beginning to figure that out. Or rather we are realizing that what we want is perpetually going to be bigger than what we can earn. We are realizing that our want has grown and that it has been encouraged to grow.
If a large part of our soul did not favor the rich, it would be easier to pity and oppose and refuse them. Loving mammon is our problem. It is not other people who love mammon: it is we who love mammon.
The first step toward disciplining our love of money is to recognize it. We would prefer to be rich. What we say against wealth is something we are saying against our own preferences. We should not be surprised at the paradox: even if we are not rich, we really do love money. But we should remember it. When we judge the rich, we judge ourselves. Judgment is the first step toward forgiveness. When we realize that we have internalized our greed, we have taken the first step toward becoming free of it.
When Bush sermonizes us with the trickle-down theory, just as Reagan did before him, enough of us believe him that we are able to deny the lived experience of trickle-down — which is that the rich spend most of their time peeing on the poor while laughing at the middle class. The rich patronize the middle class: you need us, they tell us. You need us. If you don’t keep our interest rates low enough, we won’t provide jobs for you. You need us. You couldn’t possibly be an economic actor on your own. This they say to the most sophisticated, democratic people on earth. We can control our own government but not the resources to run it. The resources have to be left to people above us.
People much less capable or educated than we managed their own economies for a long time. They bought and sold things they made and grew. They bought from each other and they sold to each other.
The recession is an opportunity to think a little differently about the big-ticket items. Like wealth, and what it takes away, while bringing goods and services much too close to our front doors. Like advertising, and the way every time we turn on the television we invite it into our homes to lie to us about what is important. Like children, and the kind of depression we have caused in them, by helping them to internalize their greed. Like our own paradoxical selves, people who are afraid because they have been taught to be afraid, and not because they have anything genuine to fear.
If I had my head attached to my body properly — instead of distorted by its internalized greed — I would see this recession as an enormous bonanza for the eastern end of Long Island, where I live. We could abolish cars. We could grow all our own food. We could keep the pollution out of our twentieth-century way of doing things. We could live on what we could fish and grow and make. We could control the population. We would have no need for a jetport. We could keep the seashores available to all the people and not to the few who could buy and fence them. We could give our children a dream large enough to live on — and show them a way of life in which hawks and fox and deer mattered as much as dollars. We could keep the North Fork from becoming the last link in the ugly, crowded strip that stretches from Boston to Washington. There would be no McDonald’s at which to spend more money than you need to spend on a hamburger. Thinking you have to have that kind of money to spend on that kind of food is a good definition of the internalized greed that makes people like me afraid of recessions — the soul bought by hamburgers.
Donna Schaper is a parish pastor in Riverhead, New York.