I recently had the amusing opportunity to read an excerpt from an article by Michael Lewis that first appeared in its entirety in The New Republic. The article was about the impact of wealth on the human brain – which is not actually a benign event, as it turns out. Moreover, by changing the brain, wealth also transformations the heart and spirit in unexpected ways. In the recent past (for some unknown reason, but I’m guessing the recession), there have been quite a number of studies on wealth (and poverty) and how it alters social and civic behavior…and the results are so consistent that it is startling. [Spoiler alert: reading Lewis’ article (or any of the studies) will dissuade most of us from cultivating wealthy friends. If you already have wealthy friends, you may want to start praying for them.]
Professor Dascher Keltner of UC Berkeley who has overseen a particularly comprehensive series of psycho-social experiments, cites a whole list of significant statistics that indicate that rich adults are ruder and more dangerous drivers, more likely to lie, cheat, shoplift, take candy clearly marked for children, and to be less generous in giving to others. What is even more disturbing is the work of Keely Muscatelli, a neurophysicist at UCLA, who has discovered that when you show pictures of children with cancer to people across the economic spectrum, poor people’s brains show much more activity in the areas responsible for empathy than do rich people’s brains. Turns out that having wealth – which, as surprising as it may be to most upwardly yearning Americans, is reached at a yearly income of $150K (yes, K) – has a chemical effect on the brain that dampens one’s sense of compassion for others. And wealth beyond the most modest level needed to provide essentials, leads to…are you ready?…unhappiness and insecurity.
When a group of clients at one of the world’s most exclusive banks were asked what amount of money would be necessary for them to feel wealthy and secure, the answer was approximately three times their current fiscal worth. Not one of the people asked was worth less than $2M. So, for someone with $2M to feel wealthy, they would need to be worth $6M. But, of course, that is a moving target. Because when you ask them next year (as they pass $3M), they will need $9M to feel wealthy.
Okay, I understand this. I was busily cutting out a coupon for adhesive bandages when it occurred to me to check whether I needed any. This was when I discovered that I owned 15 boxes of adhesive bandages. Clearly the almost full box in the medicine cabinet was not sufficient because I have been collecting bandages with what seems to be limitless enthusiasm. I have waterproof ones, and small ones, and flesh-colored ones, and ones with Jesus on them (those were a gift), and some impregnated with silver as an antiseptic, and very large ones for skinned knees (although the last time I actually skinned my knee, I was 11), and ones that fit over my knuckles (sort of), and itty bitty ones, and…you get the picture. Unfortunately, I have had some of these bandages so long that they no longer stick to anything…which segues nicely into the studies about wealth.
Wealth seems to have this power to entice human beings into accumulating it for the sole purpose of having it. And once your psyche has been trained to see financial resources through that lens, you cannot have enough. What you possess already needs to be hoarded and you need more to keep the original hoard safe. Kind of like all those expensive possessions that we need insurance for because if our house burns down or is swept away in a flood, we will need to replace them all. Or those smaller, even more valuable possessions that need to be stashed in a safe deposit box or a hidden (fireproof, waterproof) safe in our home. Which makes all these things a burden. A big burden when there are a lot of them – and if the purpose is to have enough to be safe, then (according to the consistent results of the studies – see above) you need a lot lot lot of them (and more next year once this quantity has become “the norm.”)
But as we leave Samhain and lean forward into Imbolc, I’m wondering if it might be worth remembering that we were lying fallow during the winter quarter for a reason. We let the earth rest and we leave fields to be fallow not for the purpose of having a whole bunch of empty fields, but so that those fields will be more fruitful once rested. The seeds that are beginning to break open or the ones that are about to be sown in our minds and souls and spirits, will be the fertile crop of our lives over the next three seasons, a blessing through us to the world…or not. It is worth asking what we are going to do with that abundance? We can, in fact, hoard it, save it up, stash it away for protection against a dangerous future. But here is the thing: if I hoard it and save it and stash it, I have a huge pile of something I have to take care of (dust, refrigerate, bottle, pickle, turn over, put in boxes – whatever.) I have this burden that weighs me down and costs a bundle to move from place to place.
If I share it, use it, pass it around, spread it out, put it on the sidewalk with “FREE!” written on a piece of cardboard, I can spend my time doing something a lot more interesting than moving money from one stack to another (or one stock to another). And I am not in the embarrassing situation of offering one of my guests a band-aid that doesn’t stick because it was bought before she was born.
So as the light returns to the morning (oh, so slowly), I invite you to lighten your heart (as well) by scattering the (stored up) bounty of your spirit with a generous hand. I am challenging myself to live more sparingly, more simply; and as I begin to unfurl into abundance with the spring, to resist the chemical shenanigans of my brain and recondition myself to live with fewer boxes of adhesive bandages. Want to join me?
Text © 2015, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2014, Immram-Chara, LLC
Note: The first image (the Crown Chakra) and the third image (the Heart Chakra) are from the Chakra Panel which is available in my Etsy Shop. Individual chakras can also be commissioned. The second image is a detail from Maize Mother which can be seen in the Archives.