"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 16, 2016

Where There’s A Will There’s A Relative–Why Greed, Suspicion, And Distrust Always Rule Families

Alas, times never change.  No matter how good our intentions, how serious our convictions, or how absolutely we have vowed to change, our behavior remains the same.  It is hard to accept the fact that we are all so hard-wired, so determined by the cards we have been dealt, and so easily influenced by others that our choices are so predictable and our responses no different from our great grandfathers or from those who lived a thousand years before. 

We have been taught that we each have an individual soul, God’s special gift that makes us unique.  Jesus made this very clear when he resisted the temptations of the Devil.  “Man does not live by bread alone”, he said; and with those words consigned mankind to a life of misery, penury, and hardship with only the possibility of  salvation and not the guarantee.   Miracles, mystery, and authority were enough to satisfy spiritual want and thanks to them the faithful would put up with jut about anything.

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Free will and God’s grace were the keys to the heavenly kingdom, Jesus and the apostles declared.  While one can never be sure of divine election, redemption is only possible through right and moral action.  This was the new covenant, Jesus said, a cooperative agreement between God and his subjects.   The soul always existed but was recumbent, devalued in a a world of authoritarian Jewish Law; but with Jesus’ coming and sacrifice and the spiritual renew of baptism, the soul was finally released from its dormancy and made the essence of every individual in the new humanity.

While all this may be true, and there are hundreds of millions of Christians who devoutly believe it, it is hard for an unbeliever or even an disinterested layman to give it a second look.  How can there be anything mystically God-given about the soul when everyone marches not only to the same drummer but the same drumbeat?  Even a cursory look at history shows the predictable, inescapable, and similar expressions of both individuals and their collective communities.

History and literature are filled with examples not of uniqueness, but of repetitive sameness.  All societies are configured in the same essential way.  Individuals have always been territorial, self-protective, and aggressive.  Human beings have always stuck to their own kind, been suspicious of outsiders, dismissive of fact and susceptible to image, emotion, and innuendo, likely to break every code of moral and ethical behavior in the same ways.

Tolstoy was a determinist who dismissed the Great Man Theory of history.  Napoleon might have been a creative, innovative, and brilliant military strategist, but every one of his actions was predicated on the thousands of events that preceded them.  Ordinary individuals were no different.  They were no more than billiard balls whose trajectory although random was always familiar.

Authors from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Joyce, Faulkner, and Albee have all written about the same familiar themes.  Men and women marry for the wrong reasons.  Couples fight and come apart.  Children dispute their inheritance or rights within the family.  Nations, motivated by the same self-interested incentives as families go to war, never learn, and go to war again.

The plays and novels of these writers are not interesting because of the unique themes of human behavior they describe but the uniqueness of  individual responses.  Henry II, John, Richard II, Richard III, Henry II, IV, V,  VI, and VIII all acted to preserve, defend, or expand their empires, and increase their wealth and influence.  Yet there are no more compelling characters in literature.  Richard III was an evil genius, Richard II was a philosopher, Henry VI a weakling, John craven and uninspired, Henry VIII bigger than life.

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Their women were strong, defiant, and predictably strong fighting in their own way to secure their position and their sons’ accession to the throne.  Everyone was plotting, planning, and sowing seeds of palace rebellion.  Factions fought factions, and the shifting, although predictably familiar landscapes of power ruled.

Perhaps the most common theme in literature is family greed.  Offspring always feel slighted, grandchildren never seem to get their due; wives maneuver for the best and most favorable estate.  Some couples fight for reasons other than money.  George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf fight for the moral equivalent of money – power, legitimacy, and authority.  There is no money in play, but they eviscerate each other them.  Most other stories are about greed for money, pure and simple.  Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is perhaps the best modern example, but Arthur Miller’s The Price shows how money and the perception of it can be so destructive.

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“Where there’s a will there’s a relative’' has been a joke line but an accurate description of the nastiness of inheritance struggles.  Everyone has a story. 

An acquaintance in Philadelphia, never very close to her uncle, became so after he was diagnosed with a terminal and particularly painful illness.  She attended to him, showed him concern, affection, and solicitousness.   Before his death, her uncle changed his will, giving all of his fortune to his niece, effectively disinheriting her brother and sister.

Worse yet was a distant cousin who was equally solicitous to her uncle who suffered from depression.  He was never a pleasant man to be with, dropping into black funks and taking out his despair as meanness to his wife and children.  For years he was irritable, plagued, and increasingly angry.  Only Lydia, a niece who had never been very close to him, but had for some reason showed a resilience and thick skin when around him and began to spend more time at his home.  She was the one who found him dead from suicide in his bathtub at the age of 55.

When the family found out that he had changed his will, giving the bulk of his sizable fortune to his niece, they were immediately convinced that she had coaxed him into killing himself, and although she made certain overtures to them, they were shallow and obviously insincere.  Shortly after her uncle’s death she moved to Hawaii and had no more contact with anyone.

A prominent New York family were very closely-knit.  So close in fact that everyone who knew them assumed that they would prove wrong the old adage about wills and relatives.  Yet even this family was split irreparably apart once the father died.  One of the children who had cared for him without any ulterior motive, loved him sincerely, and gave up social and professional opportunities for him, felt enraged at the short shrift he had been given by his brother as executor of the estate. 

A famous French viscount was known for his generosity, sociability, and renown within the aristocratic milieu of Paris.  His was one of the most respected of high-born French families and had direct ancestral links to the First Crusade.  Members of his family were part of French history, and the viscount was a proud legatee of that storied past.  

As in many aristocratic families, the viscount was a poor manager of money.  He had never worked, and given the size of his fortune, he had never felt the need to pay much attention to its management.  To everyone’s chagrin, disappointment, and in the case of his grandchildren anger and hostility, he had almost nothing left at his death.

Unfortunately there was just enough to fight about; and every bit of real and personal property was disputed by his grandchildren.  They did not dispute the will together, but fought each other for the largest share of their grandfather’s modest remains.   Not only did he leave next to nothing, everything – including the 300 year-old chateau was in hock. 

The fight was especially rancorous because not only money but status and social privilege were at stake.  The inheritance had as much to do with the passing on of title and status as it did actual wealth.  It ended in scandal, endless court cases, and allegations of murder.

These are only a few stories that come immediately to mind.  There are an infinite number of others.   Even in those families whose patriarchs take special care to be just and equitable in manners of their estate, and do everything within their means to sort it out before their death, fall into dispute and divisiveness.  The closest-knit families are those for whom small slights in the matter of wills and inheritance become major issues.  And of course, the dead cannot defend or explain themselves.

Edward Albee hated marriage and families, but called the family the necessary ‘crucible of maturity’.  Only by navigating the currents of love, demand, jealousy, spite, power, status, and legitimacy within families can one survive the turbulent waters outside them.

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Disputes about inheritance should never be surprising because money is a signifier and always means more than its monetary value; and because perceptions of value are always subjective, misunderstanding is inevitable.

A family is as inescapable as a prison.  We can no more easily deny our genetic inheritance, our childhood dependency, our sibling fights, our adolescent struggles, or the marital agonies of our parents than we could have escaped Alcatraz.

Last but not least, we are programmed for survival.  Collaboration and cooperation are natural only in as far as they promote our self-interest.  Human nature has no soft edges.

Put these altogether and the inevitability of fights over money and inheritance are logical, expected, and inevitable.

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