Wealth is a trap. It is not freedom. It is not the path to “the good life.” The American Dream has become a nightmare, a miry pit. It is a swamp. Una cienaga.
|Scene from the original "La Cienaga," a 2001 film that depicts a lethargic, self-pitying, bourgeoise Argentinean family.|
SCENE 1: [Overheard.] Rich socialite from Houston: “Oh my gosh it was terrible. We were trying to buy this gorgeous house in the south of France, but the time came and the agent who had arranged the deal took the money and ran. So I flew over straight away with my husband and another couple for a week. We got the French police and the FBI involved, of course! But the French did nothing. He took nearly a quarter of a million. Really terrible.”
SCENE 2: [Overheard.] An unsmiling, 21-year old girl from Santa Barbara, California. daughter of a skinny, bikini-clad divorcee. Unsmiling puts down her iPhone 4 and remarks that she’s glad to be moving to New York (City) instead of back to Cali. “I had to escape. My friends back there, they’re stuck in this weird, like, incestuous bubble. They have more money than they know what to do with.”
SCENE 3: Houston socialite overheard on a canoe excursion. “Wait, you guys don’t have water for us?” Well we will have some hot chocolate, coffee, cranberry juice and other snacks halfway through the tour…“Are you kidding me? Do you know how much alcohol they make us drink on these cruises? And you don’t have water for us? That’s really ridiculous.”
Poverty is a birdcage. Each wire is small and seems surmountable—“if only ‘those people’ would just get off their butts and get a job!” It’s only when you see all the wires together—gangs, poor education, pollution, lack of access to healthy food, media, unemployment, racism, STDs, low expectations, absent fathers, lack of healthcare, unfair criminal justice policies, crumbling houses, teen pregnancy, sexism—it’s when all these wires come together that the bird is trapped. Poverty is a birdcage.
Wealth is a swamp. The ground may look firm, or the water look cool and refreshing. But the deeper you go, the more the mud sucks you in. The lukewarm water creeps ever-higher. You’re trapped in a world of complaining, cynicism, and more food than you could ever eat. Servants surround you, and cater to your desires until your body weakens. In the swamp of wealth, frowns cease, but so do smiles. It of course takes more muscles to frown than to smile, but if your muscles are completely atrophied, you can’t do either!.
I’m twicefold a member of the “1%.” On a global and historical level, I’m a member of the richest humans who have ever lived. Ever. I’m also a recent initiate to the 1% of Americans who have graduated from a liberal arts college. And thus the swamp has never been far from my path. I may try to act as a “traitor to my class” like Warren Buffett, but the temptation is still there. Will I dabble in it? Become an unsmiling (or worse: fake-smiling), sarcastic elite? The swamp scares me because on some level it tantalizes me.
|The Dagobah Swamp|
SCENE 4: A young man, swamp-moss still clinging to his silk robe, runs through the crowd to the Teacher. He pants, out of breath—tearing himself from the mire had taken enormous effort. Teacher, he says, how do I inherit eternal life? “Ah, you wish to enter into life? Follow the rules: don’t kill or steal or cheat, love your neighbors and parents.” But, the man protests, have I not done all these things? What am I still lacking? The Teacher looks at the ridiculous figure in front of him: pudgy cheeks, designer robe, with mud caked on everything. And the Teacher loves him. With deep tenderness in his voice, the Teacher replies, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell all you possess. Leave your marsh-land and your marsh-palace and instead come, follow me.” The man’s face goes crestfallen. He slowly turns, and instead begins to trudge back to his pit. Once there, he eases himself into the ooze and cries bitterly, for he cannot part with his swamp!
“Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” A scary sentence if ever I’ve heard one. But maybe it makes sense. I see people around me trapped in the swamp of wealth, and I know that that’s not how God wants it. That’s not life. And if that’s the American dream, to have a big-screen TV, a big empty house, a big Louis Vitton bag, and a big fat entitled attitude to go with it all, then let’s leave the American dream behind. It is a trap; it is a lie.
If anyone, including me, begins to flounder in the swamp of wealth, may he, unlike the young man, have the courage to leave it. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.