The Hidden Cost Of Wealth

William James via David Brooks in Second Mountain:

“James concluded that there is something in us that seems to require difficulty and the overcoming of difficulty, the presence of both light and darkness, danger and deliverance. ‘But what our human emotions seem to require,’ he wrote, ‘is the sight of struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through it alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another [challenge] more rare and arduous still—this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us.'”

Unwittingly, with this insight, James exposes a hidden cost of wealth. Often, the wealthier people get, the more their lives are taken up with endless conversation about how to make life more convenient and comfortable as well as with the actual researching and purchasing of products and services intended to make life less difficult and challenging. The amorphous goal is to eliminate struggle. The accomplishment of which fails to inspire anyone or anything.

Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.