(Welcome back from the summer; I hope you had time for some relaxation and renewal of spirit. I am now in my second year of living in the Nevada desert in a city I am sure you have heard of: Las Vegas. In this issue of “Spirituality and Ethics,” you will find Lesson No. 3 (the lessons are ranked 10 to 1) of what former federal prosecutor Hank Shea learned from white collar criminals – how not to live your professional life. If you wish to see past issues, go to my web site – http://www.ethicsinthemarketplace.com/ – for a link to my newsletter).
Learn to be satisfied with what you have legitimately earned.
Greed is a vicious vice that can destroy you.
While the headline above may sound trite, it is important. If you judge success in life by what you can accumulate, you will never be fully content – someone will always have more, your children or others will always want more from you, and therefore, you will never have enough.
This lesson leads me to three questions:
On what foundation do you place your personal identity?
How do you judge success in life?
How much (of anything) is enough?
Personally, I had the opportunity to face the first and second of these questions when I was in my mid-twenties. I was a salesman for a food cannery, had my own territory, and an expense account. But there was something missing; I didn’t know what. One day, into my head popped the words, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”
I had no idea at the time that I was moving in the direction of leaving the business world and heading toward the life of a priest. Once I did make that move, in the first few months of life in the Jesuits, I struggled with the issue of identity. Who was I now that I was no longer a salesman with a sports car and a full social life? Gradually, I began to realize that my self-image and sense of identity had been built on descriptions of who I was, on externals – not the core of who I am. I came to a deeper sense of selfhood as I faced the new me. This led to a marvelous feeling of inner freedom and even affected how I measure success: beyond accumulation to inner satisfaction. I have shared this insight to the benefit of many people since in workshops, retreats, and in my writings.
The third question posed above – “How much is enough?” – takes us to the vice of greed. Contrary to Gordon Gekko’s infamous line in the movie, “Wall Street,” greed is not good on two levels: 1) It strangles the goodness and generous spirit of the greedy one. French novelist and playwright Honore’ Balzac put it this way, “Greed was like a slip-knot drawn more and more tightly about his heart, till reason at length was stifled.” Hank Shea tells the story of two former lawyers whom he prosecuted. “One was legitimately earning more than $1 million a year as a personal injury attorney. The other was serving as an elected official and making a decent living. However, this wasn’t enough for either of them; instead they stole from vulnerable clients. Now they have lost everything – their freedom, their livelihood, their marriages, and their self-respect and reputations.” 2) The greed of one person adversely affects the financial welfare of others. Author John Dalla Costa writes: “Executives pressured to achieve results at any cost will have the tendency to place the end before the means….Greed may wear different clothes and employ different tactics, but it is still characteristically damaging to many for the benefit of a few…the proclivity to self-interest can overwhelm common sense” (The Ethical Imperative, pages 67-68).
An occasional reflection on the question – “How much is enough?” – can help make sure one’s identity is based on the right foundation.
(September 2012 Newsletter)