Greed is good. It ‘works, clarifies, cuts through and captures. Greed for life, for money, for love, and for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind’. That is what we were told by Gordon Gekko, the fictional character in the 1987 film Wall Street.
I was thinking about greed when interacting with some addiction professional colleagues yesterday. The industry has been under fire for taking advantage of patients in the wake of our opioid epidemic. My comment that providers might be exhibiting greediness was met with resistance while some resignation to the reality. But then the director of an organization which provides care at no cost to consumers responded in a way that caught me off guard. He repeated the words of Gordon Gekko saying that greed is good. Without greed of big pharma, drugs that recently saved the life of his five-year-old son would not have been developed. I see his point, but like all the other seven deadly sins, greed must be constrained. And greed resists being bounded. It is generally unconcerned about the welfare and values of others. Greed is not good because there is never enough.
Greed’s Roots of Reward and Relief
When my grandson was a little tyke, he loved his pacifiers more than almost anything. He called them Baa Baa’s. Once he was in the car with a pacifier in his mouth and one in each hand, crying for another. When his mother pointed out that he already had three he replied; “There are never enough Baa Baa’s.” Of course, this was hilarious to all of us, and very innocent. But it also confirmed to me that we are creatures of more. This is not a greedy boy. On the contrary, he is generous, giving, kind, sensitive, and a delight to his teachers, friends, and family. What Jack reminded me of when he was a toddler is that we have an intrinsic need for comfort, control, and security. We have learned that we can have these by seeking and obtaining more stuff.
Scientists have determined that the desire for more is wired into our brains reward center by floods of dopamine which can be likened to heroin and other addictions. The slippery slope into greed is this desire for more-on-steroids. Greed can be an insatiable hunger leading to a headlong pursuit of accumulating money, possessions, power, fame, and attention. Like any addiction, getting a fix must be obtained regardless of the consequences.
Greed also has its roots in the relief of fear. An old Wall Street adage is that “Financial markets are driven by two powerful emotions – greed and fear.” In fact, it has been demonstrated that fear might be the most powerful motivator of human behavior. When people perceive there is a lack of necessities fear sets in, and when not relieved, can escalate into terror and panic. This is the reason President Roosevelt warned that the only thing to ‘fear was fear itself’ in his first inaugural address. People were running to banks and savings institutions taking all of their money out causing more and more damage to the economy. There was a shared vision that everything was out of control. The relief of fear provided by greed, however, is only temporary.
We witness greedy excessiveness every day to one extent or another. Having whatever we want, whenever we want it, is just a click away on Amazon, eBay or from countless other merchants online. Though this is usually extravagance rather than greed, it can be a symptom of addiction. Getting new stuff provides relief from loneliness or other uncomfortable feelings for many people but it does not buy long-lasting happiness. It’s actually a distraction from what really matters. There is always going to be a better version of everything you own, so let go of your need to have the latest-and-greatest thing and be happy with what you have.
“Greed will always leave you dissatisfied because you’ll never be able to get everything you desire. Greed never allows you to think you have enough; it always destroys you by making you strive ever harder for more.” – Rabbi Benjamin Blech
The Seven Deadly Sins have remedy in the Seven Heavenly Virtues. The opposite of Greed is Temperance which is defined as moderation, prudence, generosity, and compassion. Like any addiction, greed can be modified and controlled. The first step is admitting that there is a problem and that it is making life unmanageable. Following the 12 Step model works on this addiction too. If we are to help our children, we must first help ourselves. These are some practical ways to model temperance for young people in our lives:
- Get rid of clutter and stuff you don’t use by donating to the Salvation Army. Accumulations of possessions reinforces the notion that hoarding is important to comfort. Divesting and sharing send a powerful value statement.
- Reuse and Recycle. This lets kids know that we consider our resources to be vital. Stop mindlessly throwing things in the garbage.
- Establish an ongoing family charity. Working together to support a cause that is meaningful translates into a lifetime of compassion. Raise funds, volunteer and raise awareness.
- Take time to talk about purchases and expenditures with kids. The value of money and reasons for accumulating of possessions must be taught.
Working with teenagers to help them more fully understand greed can be tricky. The last thing they will respond to is preaching the gospel of living more simply when the rest of their world seems to embrace excess. One of the best exercises I have found for this was developed by the Peace Corps Environmental Activities for Youth Clubs and Camps. It is called Greed vs Need and requires only about 20 minutes to complete. The entire resource manual (available in pdf form) is a valuable tool for adults who want to teach about good habits and values.
Another great way to help teens become responsible with resources is to eliminate allowances that do not require task completion. Allow them to get jobs and require establishment of savings accounts that cannot be drawn upon except in emergent situations. Don’t bail them out by buying things they cannot afford with their own money. Gifts are good on special occasions but should never be equated with love.
Swimming with Sharks
Remember that greed is predatory and shark-like. It does not rest. The endless desire for more can become a life quest. Don’t get me wrong. I really like sharks. My friend, and SCUBA Hall-of-Famer, Patti Gross has even kissed one on the nose. Yikes. But they must be understood and respected if we are to swim with them. The thing about greed is that we swim with it all the time and we seem to be unprepared to deal with the consequences of kissing it on the nose. There is nothing wrong with having things that give us pleasure. There is nothing wrong with pursuing comfort in our lifestyles. Once again, it is all about balance. We must always be aware of the difference between needs and wants. And we must demonstrate to ourselves and our children that we know how to deal with them.