Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Rich Man Problem

"The righteous eateth to the satisfying of his desire; but the belly of the wicked shall want." (Proverbs 13:25, JPS)

"The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, But the stomach of the wicked is in need." (Proverbs 13:25, NAS)

Tom comes from humble beginnings. Growing up in a poor neighbourhood slum, he remembers the daily toils of his parents simply to put bread on the table. Sometimes, a bowl of plain soup is the best meal in weeks. Since that tender age of 8, he resolves never to be poor again. Twenty-Five years later, he sits in a highrise tower complex, staring at the center of the city's prestigious financial district. He has become the definition of the world's meaning of success. Yet, what is glittering on the outside only reflects a fading shimmering of hope on the inside on what is the meaning of life. He ponders the riches he has, but does not know how to deal with it. He realizes that material riches does not contribute much toward any forms of inner fulfillment. Life is empty, once again. Yet, he sees many of his colleagues struggling tooth and neck to try to be where he is. If only he could tell them that life up there is no glamour. Simplicity is more fulfilling than any quantum of material riches. It is the ability to answer properly the question: "How much is enough?"

It is the irony of life. Before one attains that state of plenty, one dreams and longs for it. Upon reaching that stage, how does one get rid of the associated problems of fame and riches? The problem of being the target of conspiracy and relationships that only lasts when one is rich and powerful. Friends are hard to come by. Loneliness lurks in every known room of Tom's life. A guarded disposition against opportunists has become a way of life as Tom traverses the corridors of his own personal life. At every corner and every turn, Tom has to watch he he says and not say, who he talks to and the pesky press and media which thrives on bad news happening to the rich and famous. "How I wish to be simple again!" is the cry that Tom can only share with trusted friends and family, if any.

Proverbs 13:25 contrasts two persons. The righteous man knows what truly satisfies. The wicked man is completely lost with things that is never fulfilling. One knows himself what he needs. The other is totally unaware of himself and has lost any sense of discerning what is needful and what is not. For the righteous, he knows the answer to the question of sufficiency. For the wicked, nothing is ever enough. I remember the words of the Director of Operations many years ago in a MultiNational firm I worked for, as he addresses the discontentment among the employees over the quantum of pay increment. "How much is enough?" is that question that echoes inside the minds of many employees, without any reciprocal answers. He drives home the pertinent point, that many of us do not really know ourselves, or our jobs enough to justify the amount that we feel we need. How much is enough? To the wicked, nothing is never ever enough. For the righteous, there is a clear sense of what it means to say to oneself: "That is enough." Warren Wiersbe says it well:
Material wealth is either a window through which we see God, or a mirror which we see ourselves.
Indeed, the external things we have (and our attitude toward it), can be used to mirror our inner selves. It tells us how we are doing inside, exhibited by our attitudes toward possessing them.

Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, both from Harvard Business School, share this story from their book, Just Enough.
“Long ago in ancient China, the king wanted to reward a loyal citizen. The king gave this simple man the right to mark out as much territory as he wished, and [said] that the area would be his. All he had to do was walk around, marking off the boundaries of his desired reward, and then return to the king to claim this land.

“The man set out, and on the first day he walked three miles. As he turned back to the palace in the far distance, he changed his mind. Perhaps he’d need a bit more, maybe just as far as the eye could see. A week later, he had finished walking this distance. But what if there was a drought or flood? Wouldn’t it be better to mark out enough land for farming and fishing, and maybe a woods for hunting?

“It took him a year to complete all these goals. As he set off to return to the palace and complete the circle, he thought about his children. Would this be enough to pass on to them for 10 generations? Maybe they should have access to the ocean, in case they wanted to become shipping merchants. He walked further. By now he was quite tired, but on he went, inspired by the knowledge that each step was increasing his holdings.

“Ten years later, he began his journey back, an old and tired man. Just as he entered the palace, he dropped dead. He never realized the ambitions he had continually adjusted upward. His children had no land. He never enjoyed even a fraction of the good life he sought because of his bondage to ‘never enough.’”
While it is true that being rich can free one from the worries of poverty, one must be on the lookout that there is a terrible bondage that can make our hearts captive to the chains of greed and the bondage of covetousness. "Do not covet" is the last of the Ten Commandments, but perhaps the most effective wrapper to keep together all the other earlier commandments. We do not covet after other gods otherwise that will mean idolatry that will anger God. We should not covet a 7-day work week in the name of beating the competition, for that will erase that essential Sabbatical rest day. We do not covet after the attractiveness of worldly possessions, for that can easily lead to theft, murder, adultery, false testimony and anything else that does not belong to us. Covetousness is the cancer that spirals in uncontrolled growth and will never be satisfied until the entire body is brought down to its ultimate death. It has been said that a cancerous cell is one which seeks to draw all attention to itself, where growth is never controlled, and where the purpose of a cancerous molecule is to consume limitlessly and grow at the expense of others. Nash and Stevenson observe and were themselves 'discouraged' by the consistent failures of people who have attained the societal's definition of worldly successes. They prescribe the following:
Our model is absolutely counterintuitive to the advice that tells you the secret to success is passion and focus, focus, focus. Interestingly, research in complex decision making suggests that it is actually possible to reach a constructive sense of limitation more easily in a complex landscape than when you seek one big, far-off goal."" [Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, Just Enough, (John Wiley 2004), x-xi]
They have essentially two objectives. Firstly, they want to help one to handle 'legitimate performance difficulties' in today's business world. Secondly, and more importantly, they yearn to link such skills to something deeper in order to create an 'authentic view of success.' (xii) In other words, any forms of methodology or success can only last as long as its anchoring beliefs. The more solid the commitment to a lasting set of values, the more reliable and dependable are the methods and means to achieve success. In contrast to a world of greed and ambition, the Harvard professors advocate that once the evidence of success in terms of HAPPINESS, ACHIEVEMENT, SIGNIFICANCE and LEGACY are attained, the key is to be able to say "JUST ENOUGH." Embedded in such a belief is the cultivation of meaning and understanding what a satisfying activity looks like. Their model is summed up as follows:
  • Anticipate and sort the basic expectations of success (Happiness, Achievement, Significance, Legacy)
  • Set limits on your desires so that you can regularly experience satisfaction along the way and make room for multiple kinds of success (the kaleidoscope strategy)
  • Learn what shapes your goals (the components of your self-definition)
  • Learn how to direct the right degree of resources toward each basic desire with the right timing (Just Enough) (xxi)
Huh! Another framework. That is what MBAs (sigh... I am one of them) are made of, the ability to frame all of life into something manageable. Learning the models is one thing. Knowing which to use at what particular situation and time is another.

Professors Nash and Stevenson combine their mathematical prowess and humanistic sensitivities to concoct a model for fulfillment in an age where the understanding of success has been warped and deranged out of order and proportion. They are right to observe that success needs to be adequately understood on the basis of its connection to a deeper structure. However, they lack specifics. They are in the right direction when they say that happiness is inside us, but they lack specifics on what that means and they do not go far enough. By saying that Achievement is In-Out, Significance is Out-In, Legacy is Out-Out, and Happiness is In-In, they seem to have encased the meaning of success and fulfilment in a 2x2 matrix in a 3-Dimensional world. That too lack practical specifics, though it is a good initiating sounding board for people seeking to find meaning in their work. In a way, I do not feel too comfortable with models that appear to give a message of salvation to work and the meaning of work, without anchoring themselves on a supernatural source from above. On what basis should anyone work from when implementing this model. Human wisdom? What about the complexities of life and relationships that combines all four aspects of the model? What are the factors to decide on the order of priority? Do we depend on our own fallen wisdom to decide? Do we hire more 'success consultants' to make sense of what we need to do? Any secular philosophy will ultimately remain secular. Happiness, Achievement, Significance and Legacy seen from secular eyes is unfortunately inadequate. For Christians, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. We put on Christ's lens in order to clearly see the world and the attitudes we need to have. Nash and Stevenson helpfully remind us that we must not be lost in the race for material success and earthly possessions. They are correct to remind us that we need something deeper. All in all, I feel that the book, despite its merits eventually does not go far enough. It leaves behind an aftertaste of having eaten but never really satisfied. I wonder if the title of the book "Just Enough" has got something to do with this aftertaste? Perhaps. One thing I know, a heart of thanksgiving according to the Bible, leaves a much more lasting aftertaste than any of the models taught. Paul's exhortation to give thanks continually comes to mind. I believe it goes deeper than Nash's and Stevenson's prescription.

One way to cultivate a theology of enough is to have a heart that is always thankful. Of course, one can always rationalize in a Murphy-like manner that "It could have been worse." Yet the main beneficial aspect of thankfulness is painted inside the hallways of one's thoughts and feelings in the form of not taking what we have or not have for granted. The Psalms are full of thanksgiving.
I will give thanks to the LORD with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wonders. (Ps 9:1)

I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to You among the nations. (Ps 57:9)
This is another reason to read and meditate on Psalms regularly. It takes a truly thankful heart in order to be able to express joy in gratitude for all the little things we have. Truly, a little feather held with an open palm of thankfulness is much more satisfying than a gigantic boulder grasped with two grappling arms of covetousness. The former feels free and willing to let go. The latter is worried about security and fear that others may come and steal one's property and belongings. Cultivate a thankfulness. The Chinese have a saying: "拿得起放得下, 会让你获益良多" (Willing to take up, willing to place down, brings great benefits). That is another way of saying how we need to learn to include "Enough" more frequently in our vocabulary of life. Let me conclude with one of Marva Dawn's insight:
"How fettered is our hope by the plethora of goods we have and think we need, by the notion that we can fix problems if we just have enough stuff! How small is our picture of the Triune God manifested in Christ that we might think, under duress that He is not enough." (Marva Dawn, Unfettered Hope)
Let the rich person with plenty cry out enough. Let the poor plead to be able to say, give me just enough. Let the Christian always be able to say: "Give me Christ. That is all I need for only in Christ, we can truly say: "I have enough." May the following be our prayer (Proverbs 30:7-9):

“Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God."



No comments:

Latest Posts