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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Money Can’t Buy Me Love–Of Course It Can And Always Does

It has been a persistent myth of those of modest means that money means little; and the true value of life is found in family, faith, and community.  According to the myth love is an expression of such responsible commitment, an indispensable and expected part of marriage, and the glue that holds it together.

The myth, of course, is only that.  The wealthy not only have family, faith, community, and love, but have much more of them.  A man of means and position can have as many children as he wants by as many women as he can.  Divorce, remarriage, affairs, and mistresses are not only common but expected.  Such a man is not unhappy or dissatisfied because of his wealth, somehow distracted from meaning or higher purpose; but more satisfied, ambitious in his pursuits, and fulfilled than those without money. What man would not want a beautiful wife and mistress, homes in the Bahamas, Pebble Beach, and Gstaad? A private plane, yacht, and a five-star Michelin chef in residence?  Meals at the world’s best restaurants, suites in the best hotels, first class travel, the best tables, the best views, and the best entertainment?

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The rest is just sour grapes.

Money does not literally buy love – no Class A call-girls at the Ritz – but the freedom to love whomever for as long or as short as needed.  Divorces are fought over, painful, and recriminatory for those of modest means – who gets what is important and worth fighting over – but are rarely so for the wealthy men who can settle even the most outrageous claims of offended wives.  A man of hundreds of millions is willing to spend whatever it takes to free him from wife and marry another; and herein lies the true value of wealth – freedom. 

Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, the main character in John Updike’s tetralogy is trapped in a dependent marriage.  A man from a working class family, Rabbit marries a woman whose father owns a profitable car dealership, who gives him an executive position in the firm,  and by so doing assures him a comfortable life.  Yet Rabbit is never happy.  He married his wife Janice out of responsibility not love, is financially beholden to her after she takes over the firm after her father dies, and becomes increasingly irrelevant as his wife takes charge of the business, their home, and what remains of their family.  As Rabbit admits to a former lover, as much as he would like to, he can never leave his wife.  He has no money of his own, no business opportunities outside the dealership; in failing health and with little chance of anything but a depressingly ordinary life in a decaying Rust Belt town, in a spiritless retirement community in Florida, and in a job which, although many steps up from the hard, working class labor of his father, is empty of any promise or promotion.

Yet Rabbit refuses to give in to the life which he has fallen into. 

Image result for images book rabbit is rich

In his younger years he tries to break out of his unhappy marriage, leave his slow-witted, unattractive wife and child; but makes too many mistakes and too many naïve errors of judgment.  He has wasted his natural talent and intelligence, and defeated, contrite, and ignorantly reformed, he returns to his wife; but soon after reconciliation he realizes that he has made a worse mistake – exchanging his freedom for a narrow, airless, but secure life of little promise.  He was too young, too inexperienced, and too tied to the moralistic code of the working poor to think for himself, to see the necessarily hopeless life to come, and to do anything but accept the hand he has been dealt.

As he gets older; and as the accommodated and compromised life with his wife, son, and his family becomes even more confining, more accusatory, and less forgiving, he becomes angry and mean-spirited.  Yet his misanthropy – a dislike of his wife, his incompetent, whiny, adult son; his bratty, undisciplined children; and everyone except the three Jews with whom he plays golf in Florida.  Somehow they, Rabbit thinks, have solved the puzzle – how to live an uninteresting, flat life with equanimity and fun.  Yet his depression is too far advanced.  His conviction that he will remain as he is – in place as an overweight, embittered, spiteful man for whom death is appealing.

While many authors have written about the unhappy lives of the rich – J.P. Marquand, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Ibsen and O’Neill among them – their stories are either morally illustrative or literarily tragic.  Gatsby, George Apley; Irina, Masha, and Olga; Rosmer, or Lavinia Mannon all come to sad ends because of ignorance, arrogance, limited vision, culture, or naivete.  Their fates are meant to be indicative lessons for us all.  The dangers not inherent in wealth nor facilitated by it, but more evident because of it. The fall of the high and mighty is not only of popular interest but instructional. 

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Ever since Jesus warned that it is more difficult for a rich man to gain heaven than it is for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle, we have made assumptions about the rich.  The state of wealth necessarily and permanently impairs high vision, insight, spiritual growth, and compassion for others.  It is hard to be a good man if you are a wealthy man; or its converse, it is easier to be a good man if you are poor.

The combination of envy (we all, despite the religious blandishments and warnings, all want to be rich and to enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous) and self-justifying righteousness (the rich are morally reprobate) is potent; and it is no wonder why the wealthy are often criticized.   The assumption that the wealthy cannot be righteous, happy, or satisfied dies hard.  We want the rich to have their comeuppance, to fall far and hard, and to finally get a taste of our miseries.

Of course not only most rich happy, they are extremely happy; and Jesus’ parable about the rich man and the camel – like many of his admonitions – has only indicative significance.  Yes, a wealthy man might be distracted from spiritual matters by his focus on earnings; but a postal clerk, carpenter, or shoe salesman with no profit margins to consider or wealth to accumulate can be just as spiritually ignorant, slavish to things and circumstances. 

Fitzgerald believed Jesus and subscribed entirely to his vision:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

Image result for images f scott fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s assumption is illustrative of the same envy-righteousness as that of most people without wealth, a point of principle rather than fact.

It is easier, more pleasant and agreeable to have a chauffer or ride in a comfortable, high-performance car.  A week at a villa on St. Bart’s is far more attractive than one at Ocean City or the Outer Banks.  A stay in a suite in a five-star hotel is better than an AirB&B on a noisy street.  A dinner at Jean-Georges in New York City far better than ethnic food in Takoma Park.  Armani, Dior, St. Laurent, and Tiffany are more elegant and stylish than off-the-rack, thrift store, mix-and-match urban make-do. The education afforded children of wealthy parents is private, exclusive, selective, and high quality and of no comparison to public schooling.  First class is better than back-of-the-plane below-economy.  Everything is better and everything else is whining.

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The most important benefit of wealth – freedom – should never get lost amidst the more obvious and visible ones.  The freedom to do as you please because, thanks to your wealth, you can, is undeniable.  No one wants to live the life of Rabbit Angstrom, but most do.  Most must be satisfied with a difficult life justified by goodness at best and envious vindictiveness at worst.  

All of which is why Americans have never lost and never will lose their very special aspirational quality – to rise in status and economic viability even to the very top.  While for some such a rise only means things – more beautiful things, more fun things, more happy things – for most others it means liberation from the old, shopworn, uninspiring world of family, faith, and work.  For Rabbit Angstrom all three have been confining, debilitating, and depressing.

Fitzgerald thought the rich were different because of their entitled arrogance.  Hemingway who replied to Fitzgerald statement, ‘The rich are different from you and me’, by saying, ‘Yes, they have more money’, was far less romantic and less idealistic than Fitzgerald.  The only difference between the rich and the poor was a question of dollars and cents.  Being poor guaranteed no salvation or goodness. Being wealthy assured no damnation or no misery.

The real difference is this – the rich have more freedom.

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