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Wealth Is Not Worth – 2/23/2014

Near the end of one of William Shakespeare’s great historical tragedies, Richard III finds himself on the losing side of the battle of Bosworth Field. His men are driven, half his army has turned against him, and his horse has been shot out from under him. Amidst the smoke and blood of the battlefield, he is nearly alone with his crimes, haunted by the ghosts of all the friends he has betrayed, all the people he has killed in order to win the crown and keep it. With the fortunes of war turned against him and any hope of victory long gone, the king of England howls out a bargain which is also that play’s most famous line, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”[i]

As a quotation, this is usually taken to mean that he Richard is trying to escape. He wants the horse so that he can flee the battle, and England, and so survive. That was always the way that I understood it, until I read the play and realized: Richard has no intention of running away. He wants the horse so that he can ride back into the fight, so that he can kill his rival. The war is certainly lost, his kingdom certainly gone, his life certainly forfeit. He has spent a great many years and undertaken countless cruel and terrible acts in order to become king, and now he would trade it all for one last spiteful opportunity for revenge.

This is only one famous and dramatic example of the truth that the value of things, the worth of objects and possessions, is subjective. This is a central premise to all of modern economics and the world in which we live: if the value of a barrel of oil, or of a bushel of potatoes, or of a crate of iPhones were objective – constant and equally true to all people in all places and times – then there would be no need to set prices or strike bargains. The principle of “buy low, sell high” would never apply to anything. But clearly the worth of objects is not constant and universal. The crate of iPhones which is worth more than a barrel of oil today would have been a worthless oddity 60 years ago in a world that had no concept of the cellular phone, and the barrel of oil which is worth far more than a bushel of potatoes today would have been useless 100 years before the invention of the internal combustion engine. And any hungry person today, if they had no means to sell the items to anyone else, would likely take the potatoes over the other two.

So we live in a world where the value of things is constantly changing, being refigured and reconsidered, negotiated over and haggled about. And because we are so collectively obsessed with determining the worth of objects and profiting from it, we too often fall prey to trying to measure the worth of subjects – of people – in the same way. So that nearly everything about a person is a thing which can be bought and sold in our economy: not just our labor, but also our health, as so many struggle to afford necessary medicine and treatment. A price may also be placed on dignity. Consider the way in which celebrity culture offers to trade money and fame for privacy and self-respect, or how the suffering of poverty is sometimes called necessary in our ridiculously wealthy nation, in order to convince people to perform jobs that they otherwise would be unwilling to do.

It is almost as though every element of the self could be reduced to dollars and cents. Dr. Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic once attempted to make such an estimate for the human body specifically: if reduced to its essential elements, what would its worth be? He assessed the price at 84 cents. A librarian at the Mayo Clinic recently refigured the math based on current prices for things like nitrogen and phosphorous. Her estimate came to an even dollar.

But that only considers the physical stuff of our selves; what about our more intangible qualities? For nearly as long as there has been a religious concept of the soul, there have been stories of people attempting to sell theirs. In the German legend of Faust, a scholar sold his soul in exchange for knowledge and pleasure. The landmark blues musician Robert Johnson was said to have traded his soul to the devil in exchange for his preternatural talent with a guitar. And in one particular episode of the Simpsons, the family’s eldest child, Bart, sells his soul to his best friend for $5, reasoning that souls are imaginary things with no value at all, while a five dollar bill is worth five whole dollars.[ii]

When Bart’s sister Lisa finds out about the exchange, she is incredulous. “How could you do that?…Whether or not the soul is physically real…it’s the symbol of everything fine inside us….the only part of you that lasts forever.” Bart is unmoved by this, and offers to make Lisa her own bargain if she thinks his prices are too low. “I’ll sell you my conscience for $4.50. I’ll throw in my sense of decency too. It’s a Bart sales event! Everything about me must go!”[iii]

This seems to me a similar attitude to the one which created a minor news story a few years ago, about a woman who sold her name. After posting the right to it on eBay, she legally changed her name to that of the online gambling site that won the auction. (I am intentionally not repeating her new name to avoid giving the website any more free publicity.) This story was followed not long after, by the news that a set of parents had sold the rights to their son’s given name, so that he would be listed on his birth certificate as “[Gambling Website].com Silverman.”[iv]

Of course, our names may influence who we are, but they cannot determine our fate. So maybe those parents were being quite as clever as Bart Simpson first felt himself to be: selling something abstract and imaginary for cold, hard currency. There is a story from the Buddhist tradition about a man who’s name in the local language meant, ‘curse.’ Curse was generally disliked and mistrusted by everyone, except for a certain wealthy man who had been his playmate when they were both children. The rich man gave Curse work in his household, but his wealthy friends thought this was unwise. The normal course of life and work had the man’s unlucky name being called out a hundred times each day: “Good morning, Curse.” “How is the work coming, Curse?” “Curse: would you please pass the salt?” In this way, they thought that the rich man was inviting ill fortune by employing his childhood friend.

But then there came a night when a band of robbers sought to plunder the rich man’s estate, while the master of the house was far away. Curse, his loyal servant, stayed up the night, watching for danger, and when he saw strangers approaching the house with malicious intent, he woke up the rest of the house staff, and ordered them to light every candle, and to bang on pots and drums and anything else that would make a great noise. The robbers fled, and when the owner returned he said of Curse, “It is not the name, but the heart within that makes the man!”[v]

This story points out how ridiculous it is to judge another person by something as incidental as their name, and I think that most of us were already on-board with that before we heard the tale. And yet, how often in life do we judge each other, and particularly ourselves, on the basis of things even less relevant to our character than our names. I am thinking particularly of the way that we can get caught up in our own financial success – or the lack thereof it – in our money-obsessed society. How we confuse wealth with worthiness.

The cartoonist Kin Hubbard said, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” Our world is quite creative in the indignities that it invents to apply to those who have less. In Raleigh, NC, the authorities there have recently conspired to make it almost completely illegal to feed the homeless. And camps of people living out-doors when they have no in-doors to live in are routinely broken up all over the country – including right here in Essex County – without being replaced with any real alternative. It seems that anyone turning to any form of public assistance or support for their survival can be labeled a taker or a moocher by elected officials. Hanging over nearly every discussion of public policy or private charity to reduce the suffering of poverty is the attitude that there are certain things that the poor ought not to have. Nice clothes, a working cell phone, a decent computer or a car that isn’t a danger to drive. The judgment is that any of these things disqualify one from being truly poor, or actually in need, as though presentable clothes aren’t a necessity if you ever want to pass a job interview. As though a car and a phone aren’t critical to being able to hold down most jobs. As though every item of value that you might own and work hard to obtain, ought to evaporate the moment that you get laid off, or foreclosed upon. These powerful messages of shame get into our bones and eat away at our sense of self-worth – not just for being poor, if we are poor, but for being anything less than rich. For being out of work or underemployed. For having a job that doesn’t use our degree. For renting, when we cannot afford to buy. For having a smaller house or a cheaper car than our brother or neighbor or friend. As though any of these things could say anything at all about how much our lives are actually worth.

We need to be reminded – sometimes I need to remind myself – that money cannot measure the value of our lives. This week I got to have a conversation with our Coming of Age class – the high school-age folks in the process of graduating from our church school into the adult congregation. As part of that process they were interviewing a few of us “grown-ups” about what we believe, and how we explain Unitarian Universalism to ourselves and to other people. And as often happens in these sorts of discussions, when Unitarian Universalists are asked to dig down deep into the barest and most crucial things they believe, somebody brought up the First Principle. A reminder: there are seven principles described in the covenant between our congregations. They have changed some in form, wording and number since the first version of that covenant 53 years ago. And they could always change again: the words we share in common are there to describe what is true beyond words, and we have, together, the power and the responsibility to reshape that language whenever we find our way closer to the truth.

The first principle – that we affirm, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” – is easily the most quoted line in our covenant. It is only rivaled by the seventh – the “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The fundamental worthiness of human beings is a belief that deeply shapes who we are. It is a theological starting point for many of us. But what is it in us that is worthy? If the calculus of the marketplace, that attempts to reduce all things to dollars and cents, has no bearing on the value of lives, what is its measure?

The simple answer, I believe is that each of us is worthy because of our souls. Now, that is an explanation so simple that to just say it and stop would qualify as dodging the question. I have previously offered a definition of the soul as the sum of our potential to feel love, pursue justice, practice compassion, and experience awe.[vi] Either a metaphor for these capacities in each of us, or a thoroughly real metaphysical self through which they operate, depending on the angle at which you view the universe. I continue to rely on this definition. But thinking about the source of human worth this past week has helped me to see that the essential quality of the soul – again, by my definition – is the capacity for reaching out. Reaching out beyond the solitude of our existence with senses, mind, or heart. Reaching out in wonderment, questioning, or love. Our ability to reach out to the other scattered points of the universe, forging the connections that make up our interconnected web: this is what makes us worthy.

There is a famous story in the Christian tradition that the teacher Jesus was questioned once about paying taxes to an occupying army. This was what is today commonly called today a ‘gotcha’ question. Some folks were trying to corner him into saying something either politically dangerous or spiritually irresponsible. His answer, you have no doubt heard: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” That instruction draws a line between the values and measures of money and military might, and the spiritual standards of the cosmic, the infinite. But it is a very ambiguous line. So just like those students who sought to follow their teacher’s instruction, it falls to us, as to all people, to make our own determination. Which parts of our world and our lives within it will be measure by the metrics of profit, in capital and interest, principle and dividend. And which portions we will measure only by the standard of the soul: by which all people are infinitely precious, impossible to replace or exchange, and all objects and choices must be judged according to the connections they create, sustain, or destroy. We live in a world in large part shaped and determined by money. An understanding of its standards and values is an unavoidable necessity. But our world also suffers from too many choices being made according to those standards of wealth, and too few according to the only real measure of worth.

[i] Act V, Scene IV.


[iii] “Bart Sells His Soul,” Season 7, Episode 4.

[iv] – this was a frequently repeated news story in 2005, but all trails seem to lead back to news leases from the self-promoting website, which raises some question as to its objectitivty.

[v] “Jataka Tales of the Buddha: #83”, retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

[vi] “The Work of the Soul,” sermon delivered at the First Parish Church in Beverly, MA, 2/3/2013.


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