Why the Rich don’t know they’re Rich

Why the Rich don’t know they’re Rich

[a guest post by Yaholo H]

I live in Hamilton County in Indiana. If you are not familiar with it, it is kind of the Dubai of the Midwest. Our churches look like a combination of Hogwarts and a Frank Lloyd Wright concert hall. (I will stop for a minute so you can Google all that…. Ready? Ok.) You can’t throw a rock without hitting a conservative evangelical. (BTW, don’t throw rocks at conservative evangelicals.) Yet, with all this wealth and religion, our central city, Indianapolis, struggles with poverty and is one of the largest food deserts in the country 

Those who work to overcome poverty, or raise awareness of social issues, often find themselves wondering, “Why is this so hard?” Are rich people just bad? Do they hate the poor? In areas like mine, it can be infuriating to see all the need with so much wealth just on the other side of the road. But here is the shocking part, the wealthy in my community don’t even know they are wealthy. 

Say What?!? – The Miserable Wealthy 

You heard me. In these huge castle churches with parking lots packed full of SUVs, most people are just worried about losing what they have. The men’s prayer groups really highlight this (I am not being sexist, I am just male. I can’t go to the women’s prayer groups… inconspicuously.) Just about every other request is fear of a job loss, anxiety about a promotion, worry about moving, etc. So many rich people who can only worry about losing what they have. 

Before you feel I am being overly harsh here, I want to confess I suffered the same problem. After all, I live here. Likewise, I also was never more stressed in my life than when I was making my highest level of income. All I could think about was the next upgrade and what would happen if I lost it. I never thought of myself as rich, partly because I was comparing myself to those around me. If I had never gotten involved with the community ministries in the city, I probably would never have gained perspective. So let’s ask, why don’t the rich know they are rich? 

We Fear the World 

“You fear the world too much,’ she answered gently. ‘All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off, one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol 

The reason A Christmas Carol was so powerful wasn’t because Charles Dickens condemned the rich as evil, but because he saw them as lost. The conversation between Scrooge and his fiance, which I quoted above, is seldom included in the movies but is a powerful statement. Dickens reveals that the core of Scrooge’s greed is fear of the world. He wants to have enough money and resources as to be free of “its sordid reproach.” 

Being poor sucks, you feel you are always at the mercy and judgment of others. Even as you hit some success in life, we all have to navigate the social pecking orders to make a living. Unless you hit an epic Warren Buffett level of assets, you still feel vulnerable. Often, people feel more vulnerable than when they had less, because they have more to lose. 

We Esteem the Opinions of Those More Powerful Than Us 

If you are walking down the street and a beggar criticizes your fashion sense, you will most likely not care. However, if you are walking down the street and rich man in a suit says you look terrible as he gets into a limo, you will mostly likely feel embarrassed. This social psychology is a big part of our culture. So because we only care what people more powerful than us think, we keep chasing approval and status by the “next level.” 

As any of us grow in wealth, we don’t think about where we came from, we just think about how far we have to go. Just bought a house? Now you will see every house bigger and better than yours. Just got a car? Now you will see every car cooler than yours. If we don’t take effort to examine these thoughts and behaviors, they will be our first impulses. When our eyes are fixed on “more” we can’t see those with “less,” and we are always seeing ourselves as the less fortunate. 

We All Just Want Respect 

Related to our fear of the world, we also want respect. Be it from our parents, our peers, or the world around us, we often want stuff for the sake of status more than for the actual stuff. Let’s face it, God may look at the heart, but man looks at the outside. And when you have a great suit, the man thinks pretty highly of you. It feels good to have instant respect or status, but it becomes a source of internal slavery. 

Resentment of the Weak 

Those who have fought their way to wealth and power, or climbed the corporate ladder have been through a lot of stress, anxiety, and confrontation. When you have fought that many battles, you start to resent those you see as “weak.” Ultimately, this is where the “get a job, you bum!” mindset comes from. “After all, if I had to endure so much to get here, then they should have to endure it too.” 

Successful careers have often come at the sacrifice of family time, personal interests, and often any idealism we had coming into the world. In the name of necessity, we often see these sacrifices as “virtuous.” We praise people for being single-minded toward success. We see success as a sign of “good decisions,” so we then of course will see poverty as simply being “bad decisions.” But when we do this, we make success our god and ambition our religion. 

Don’t Envy the Rich 

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19.24 (ESV) 

I realize how cliche it is to say “money doesn’t buy happiness.” So let’s say this instead, “money has nothing to do with happiness.” Some people have the wisdom to use money in a way to bless others and themselves, even if they are a minority, which is what Scrooge learned how to do at the end of A Christmas Carol. The bottom line is that being wealthy is often a burden, or was a burden to achieve. What we do know, which Jesus told us, is that the most spiritually precarious place to be is at the top of the ladder. 

Love Thy Enemy

All this is so important because it is too easy for those of us to are working for social justice and combating poverty to demonize the rich, as if we wouldn’t have the same temptations in their position. Understanding the humanity of those in power is the key to making cultural bridges in our conversations. Appealing to the “softer sides” of those who seem so dense is an effective way to create disruption, curiosity, and receptivity. Everyone just wants love, respect, and acceptance, the rich and the poor alike. 

Am I Rich? 

If you are asking yourself if you are rich or not, take a look at this “Litany for a Rich Man”

[For more from Yaholo, you should visit his blog at http://www.yaholo.net or grab his new book “What If Christians Grew Up?” at http://www.yaholo.net/whatifchristiansgrewup]

Brett Anderson

Brett "Fish" Anderson from South Africa (the country) is passionate about seeing the church live out what it says it believe in all areas of life. He is married to the beautiful Val (tbV) and hates raiSINs with a different kind of passion.
  • http://gravatar.com/josephgrenon joseph grenonj

    Rich people can isolate themselves from poverty. Poor people have the trappings of wealth shoved in their faces all day. TV, billboards, fancy cars nice clothes fine restaurants fancy vacations, all that. If you don’t have money, you become convinced you are a loser because the luxuries are presented as standard equipment. Luxuries include good food, good health care, decent housing and a solid education for your children. Wealthy people have those choices and simply take them for granted. Wealth implies security, but there is no such thing. The best thing that can happen to a wealthy person is to lose everything and be forced to have to make decisions about what really is important. Scrooge was able to learn this lesson without losing everything. Instead, he was able to learn how to use his wealth to make himself and others happier.

  • http://brettfish.wordpress.com brettfish

    Joseph, thanks for your response. That is very insightful and sounds like it comes from someone who may have walked that road. If you would be up for writing a full post on this idea that the rich can isolate themselves from poverty, i would be happy to post it – drop me a line at brett@commonchange.com – really appreciate you stopping by.

    love brett fish

    • http://gravatar.com/josephgrenon joseph grenonj

      I do not think that I qualify as poor by the Federal definition. I am a single gay man aged 62. I never had a family for many reasons, but the biggest may be because I never earned enough money to properly support children. My life was destroyed by fire in 2001 when my business burned to the ground, taking with it my job, my identity, my career, my savings, my retirement and ultimately my house my dignity and my self respect. It has been difficult since then, and most difficult since 2008. I analyze every expense. I don’t go to movies or out to dinner or drinks with friends. I don’t tell them, that I just can’t afford it. I have not had my dog to the vet in 3 years, because I never seem to have the $500 I know it will cost for the check up. I struggle to pay health insurance premiums, but I find a way, because I have chronic conditions that require very expensive meds. I took a vacation in 2010, only because a brother paid for my plane ticket and picked up most of the bills for food and lodging. At the grocery store, I only buy what is on sale, and then only after an internal mental argument over what I really need. I have a roommate without whom it would be difficult to pay the rent. It would be nice to find a companion or a spouse, but pretty much any venue for meeting people costs. Even once you meet someone, those early dates require spending; I am fearful of being rejected not just because of my age, but also because at my age, I should not be this poor. Church is not an option. I’ve always thought church was for show offs and people who want to impress each other. I don’t feel they ever want to really help anyone without shaming them first. I stopped believing in god many many many years ago; I never found any comfort or help there, just emptiness and false hope. I have given away a lot of money over the years. I’ve opened my home to homeless friends and strangers. I’ve given work and support to people who could no longer hold a regular job, more so they would have somewhere to go and something to do. I have some pride still. Most people do, even when they are poor. It is difficult to ask for help. Children are the most helpless. When I was a child, my parents lost everything they had, and I remember how tough it was for them. I remember how disappointed I was in my father for not providing. I understood his losses were the direct result of his providing groceries on credit to people who never made any attempt to repay him, but I still blamed dad, and I know he knew that and it hurt him. None of his church friends or his brother the priest offered any help. My parents struggled on their own and eventually made their way back to a modest lifestyle and social security retirement. My own challenges force me to think hard about all of my choices. Living in suburban Washington DC puts you up against a lot of affluence. So many neighborhoods with million dollar plus homes; cars in the driveway that are worth more than the homes most people live in. I see cars parked at high schools that I could never afford. School kids wearing clothes I could never afford for myself, people spending so much money on so many frivolous things. Many of them work very hard at jobs they hate, dealing with people they can’t stand. They golf and socialize and throw parties and give all kinds of gifts; they have season tickets to the theater, or baseball, or the opera, and they go, as much to be seen as anything. I often wonder what I might be missing. I console myself with the idea that they are probably not very happy, and that they worry about how they will pay for the tickets, the clubs, the lessons for the kids, the summer camps, the travel abroad and the entertainment for the kids. Mostly, I just go home and try not to think about it. I watch a lot of tv, because it is the cheapest passtime I can find. At least I get enough to eat. Not everyone does, especially children. I don’t have a bucket list. I drop out of circulation entirely around christmas, just so I don’t have to deal with embarrassing questions, or humiliating invitations to spend the holidays with other people who don’t get it. I used to work very very hard. 100 hour weeks were common. 6 or 7 days a week, even now, and for the last 35 years. I put everything I had back into the business, and the business just went up in smoke. I have been paying down the debt for 12 years now. I keep hoping it will be gone in three or four years, but it is still there. I have my pride. bankruptcy is not an option. I have never taken a government handout of any kind and I pay my bills and my debts. Wealthier people may worry about losing what they have. So do I . A few weeks of not working would be a disaster. A long term illness or an injury would surely render me homeless, and I see myself in those people on the street begging for money at the intersections. I guess my pride would have limits some day. Well at least I never put children through any of that. Children are cruel. If adults cannot understand poverty or good fortune, how do we expect children to deal with it. Government turns its back on the poor. So do many churches and other wealthy organizations who claim to help. I don’t know why the rich don’t know they are rich; maybe because they compare themselves to others with even more wealth. I think that might be why many of us who are poor don’t know we are poor. We all know there are folks out there with less than we have. Nobody wants to admit paucity. I always answer that I’m doing fine. Nobody really wants to know the real answer. It is easy to overlook poverty. The neighborhoods can be avoided, and you never really see what is inside someone’s home.Poor kids go to school in poor neighborhoods where the children of privilege need not see or smell them. All the places in which the affluent spend time are not available to the poor, so really it is an out of sight out of mind phenomenon. Well it is easy for the well to do to be blind to the poor, but it is just not possible for the poor not to see the wealthy.

      • Brett Anderson

        Thanks for sharing, Joseph. It sounds like life has been pretty rough for you. I’m sorry you have had such a negative experience of church. I have certainly seen that in mine and others’ lives too’ BUT i have also experienced [and seen] incredible displays of love by the church and the people who make it up – people supporting, inviting, celebrating, investing, giving opportunity to and so much more – it is the community of people that i find so valuable and it sounds like that is what you have been missing.At Christmas time we try and invite people who are alone to hang out with us cos we get it can be quite a lonely time and just want to share what we have with those around us and we have had some incredible Christmas times with friends and strangers even just sharing stories and prayers and hopes and of course food but the food and money and present aspects all take back seat to the people and what they have to offer just by showing up.

        There is an african concept called ubuntu that carries the idea that a person is a person through people and that is what we hold to – my wife and i love showing hospitality [because we have received it so often in different ways] and really just want to share God’s love – I’m really sorry your experience of God and christians has been negative and encourage you to give them another chance – we are all people and so we all make mistakes and sometimes get it horrible wrong, but sometimes with God’s grace we get it beautifully right as well and those times for me have been worth it.

        The pride thing? Well you see it and so you are aware it is a choice you are making and that choice holds consequences and so you are in effect choosing those. a lot of the church is about humbling yourself before God and admitting you can’t do this thing by yourself [none of us can] and then watchin as He lifts you up – as He does… but until you are up to facing that, it will be a difficult one to get past.

        Strength and love in Him
        brett fish