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Consider the true meaning of wealth this Christmas
A TEENAGER whose parents were divorced saw very little of her father, a wealthy investment banker. Nevertheless, he always remembered her at Christmas and on her birthday, and twice a year he would dutifully give her an extremely generous cheque.
One Christmas he was taken aback when, upon being handed the predictable envelope, his daughter burst into tears. "I do wish that instead of giving me all this money you would, just once, go out and choose something for me that you thought I might like, even a pair of socks," she said. "Money costs you nothing."
Our relationship with wealth is fascinating and complex. Money can be a blessing; it can make good things happen; it can bring quality of life. Yet it can also have a profoundly damaging impact upon our lives, sometimes in ways that we fail to recognise.
One of my great heroes, the 16th century priest and writer Richard Hooker, astutely observed that too little prosperity, and too much, can be equally dangerous for us. In his view, living in extreme poverty or with extreme wealth can both be more than "ordinary human virtue" can handle. What did he mean by this? It is easy to see how someone who is destitute might feel driven to theft or crime in order to survive; but in what sense could having too much be regarded as perilous?
I was for some years the vicar of one of the wealthiest parishes in the West Midlands, home to some of the most successful and prosperous people in the region. Yet during my time there I dealt with more cases of suicide than in the rest of my 30-year ministry.
Concealed behind the security gates of many luxury homes lurk stories of depression and loneliness, crumbling marriages, alcoholism or domestic abuse. An underlying factor was sometimes the vulnerability felt by those whose personal identity and sense of self-worth were so bound up with their earnings power that they found themselves exposed and insecure during periods of economic downturn.
There were also instances of what I can only describe as child neglect - something that I never expected to encounter in youngsters who, in purely material terms, had far more than they could possibly want or need. It might come as no surprise to find major social problems in an area of severe economic deprivation; but to encounter them in a setting of great affluence was a shock. The experience left me with much to reflect upon.
Alongside the good that money can undoubtedly achieve when used wisely and well, too much of it can distort our priorities and sense of normality to damaging effect. We tend to assume that it will bring us security and peace of mind, yet it has a habit of doing the exact opposite, generating whole new levels of anxiety and fear.
I have also observed how excessive wealth can have a corrosive effect upon friendships and family life, especially when it is used as a substitute for proper human relating. The teenage girl in my opening story knew perfectly well that she was being bought off by a father who found it easier to write her a large cheque than make the effort to purchase her a small gift. I am almost certain that he himself was blind to what he was doing. From his point of view he was being excessively generous. What more could she possibly want from him?
"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." These lines from the Gospel of Matthew caused me to question: Do we own our wealth and possessions, or do they own us?
I once met a young man who was testing his vocation to the monastic life, which required him to take a vow of poverty. His mother, who was struggling with the whole idea of him becoming a monk, had bought him a beautiful and expensive sweater for Christmas. Startled by what he regarded as the extravagance of her gift, the young man went to consult his novice guardian about what he should do with it.
The answer he received was marvellously insightful, although not quite what he was expecting: "Thank your mum for the wonderful present," he was told. "Enjoy wearing it. Then give it away to someone who needs it more than you do."
I often reflect on that story when reviewing my relationship with my own possessions. Do I own them? Or do they own me?
Money is powerful and can be profoundly seductive. Its impact upon our lives can appear outwardly positive, while at the same time it slowly erodes the things that truly are of lasting value - the human relationships that cost us nothing, but give us everything.
I was struck the other day by the wisdom of a phrase in Psalm 62: "Though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it." FT
- The Reverend Canon Dr Alison Joyce is the rector of St Bride's Church in Fleet Street, London. Twitter: @AlisonJoyce12