Monday, July 28, 2014

The Good, the Greedy, and the Little Bowl


“I built this company with my own two hands,” the CEO says. In the backdrop are the fields of grapes being picked by two hundred pairs of hands. He built it alone. Beyond the workers are the machine operators and the truckers who carry the grapes, and beyond them are buildings and roads built by hundreds more to transport the grapes. He built it alone.

Does anything grow on its own? The CEO had an idea. The CEO took a chance. He invested his money; he took the risks. He acquired the knowledge needed to produce good fruit and to market it well. He worked mornings and nights and suffered droughts and kept going. Along with him, the pickers and handlers worked hard. Without them, would he have produce to sell? Without the workers building the roads, would he be able to distribute what he grew? The people together worked.

It took more than two hands. Southern plantation owners grew rich quickly with slave labor. Did they build their empires with their own two hands?

Ego. Sometimes it’s ego that drives a person to success. Ego rooted in a need to prove oneself, to make a grand show of success, a desire for riches to give credence to one’s name. When ego motivates, are others ever recognized?

The same weekend that I watched the movie Cesar Chavez I also watched The Wolf of Wall Street. Whom do we admire? The person who puts his own financial security and safety at risk to help others or the person who puts others at risk for his own financial success? Do we admire trickery and the ego that justifies it as talent?

When a person has knowledge, when a person has talent, does a person have an obligation to use it well? In The Wolf of Wall Street, the stockbroker had talent. He could sell. The CEO of the grape farm would have done well to have him market his product. The small business owner, the migrant worker trying to establish a union, they would benefit from the stockbroker’s talent. Drive and creativity, the power to persuade, these talents get the world moving, help bring new things to our awareness, raise production and bring more jobs.

What makes one person choose to use this talent to help others while another uses it to deceive and abuse the “suckers of the world” must come down to personality, innate or learned. In one movie I saw a compassionate heart and a mind with knowledge and drive to fix a failing situation; in the other movie I saw a greedy heart fixed on gathering the envy of others. It isn’t the money that corrupted. It’s the impetus of ego.

My daughter had a friend whose father was a pilot and whose mother was a university professor. Their incomes allowed a nice house, education for the kids, frequent travel overseas, grand vacations. Knocking on their front door brought the pilot dad skidding across the floor in his socks. He’d jump up and down like a kid. And the mom would invite you inside, talk about the kids’ latest art projects, ask advice about turning forty. Their wealth provided fun times and education and the chance to help people, without the need for praise. They were involved in democratic campaigns and their daughter aspired to a political office where she could do something good. Their jobs, their income, their possessions were never for show. What defined them were their kid-like pleasures, their sincerity, and their respect for people. Money did not corrupt.

Why is pride the deadliest sin? Is it at the root of greed? Deception? Envy? What does it mean to aspire to greatness rather than to arrive at greatness unsought? What is the difference between focusing on the deed and focusing on the reward? I think happiness. Is the reward ever as good as the doing?

Why couldn’t the stockbroker give up the company he created? He loved what he did. He had great talent for what he did. Exercising that talent undoubtedly made him happy. But he became addicted to the rush of each deception he pulled off, each new woman or toy he acquired, and each new man he impressed. Did he begin to mistake the reward for the happiness? The rewards that were never enough?

In raising kids, I couldn't embrace the reward system. It seemed somehow inherently wrong. I’d tell the kids that studying hard would give them confidence to take the test, and that was a good feeling. And whether or not they got an A, if they knew they tried, they’d handle the consequence. My daughter would come home and say her friend got a trip to the Dells for her good grades, but she'd laugh as she said it, knowing I’d just smile and say, something horrible like “That’s great for her, and you worked really hard and it shows. What you did wasn’t easy. But you did it.” Boring but focused on the doing?

What does it mean to get a prize for ordinary, even immoral, actions? What definition does that give to happiness? Does the excess portrayed in The Wolf of Wall Street come from a loop of striving for happiness with constant failure? Do we all fall into these patterns at times, in places in our lives?

Addictions, bad habits, false searches, all with the target of ultimate joy? I like the rush of excitement at something new, and I like working toward something I love. But life is as full of letdowns as accomplishments, and the process toward something seems to be what’s best. So should we forget happiness as a goal? The student monk who journeyed to Tibet to seek the wisdom of the old master at the mountaintop, said, “I am new to the monastery, what can you teach me?” To which the master asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?” He had, and the master responded, “Then go wash your bowl.”

Maybe Cesar Chavez always washed his bowl and made sure his neighbor had a bowl too. Maybe the Wall Street wolves prefer a new bowl every day and want to be sure it’s better than their neighbors’. Where does it begin, our pursuit of happiness and our means to getting there? What people helped or hurt us along the way?

My spouse is greasing trailer tires and gave me a job to do to help him. My daydreams of something fun tune into the moment; I'm washing the bowl. And life keeps moving forward.


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Patricia J. Esposito, author of Beside the Darker Shore.
Novel Reviews: Goodreads, GLBT Bookshelf,

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