I had my first true inkling that being rich might have its own challenges in the mid ’80s, when I was in a relationship with a millionaire. At the time I was living in a tiny apartment on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan, which was still in the early phase of massive gentrification. More than once, I remember him standing at my window looking at the people walking up and down the street, and saying: “They all want to be where I am.” More than the words, it was the unmistakable tone of melancholy that I heard in his voice that affected me. Nothing in his demeanor resembled happiness. I also remember another phrase he often said: “What comes after success?”
One of the mythologies of our culture is that having money is the single most important factor in the choices we make, the most reliable path to a life of happiness, and the ticket to feeling good about ourselves. In some significant ways, money indeed provides access to more resources, such as material goods of any kind as well as services that may not be available to all. Having enough money means a certain kind of immediate ease with all manner of decisions. I don’t intend to minimize the significance of such material benefit.
And still… The more I have come to know the lives of people with significant access to resources, the more struck I am with how many challenges and hardships they experience. Given how easily and often the rich are maligned (a challenge in and of itself), I wanted to offer my intuitive and learned understanding of the plight of the rich. If you happen to have access to money, you will likely recognize some of these dilemmas. If not, I hope you can imagine it. My goal, here as often, is to support our collective movement toward a world that works for all, the currently rich and the currently poor, by reducing the veil that hides our humanity from each other.
The Plight of Isolation
A friend once reflected that having more resources means being more isolated, even in the most physical of ways. When a person acquires a home and a piece of property to go with it, it means more distance from the next neighbor. The likelihood of community, of an interdependent way of living within the human family, are greatly diminished. Even those of us with moderate resources have accepted this way of living. Instead of the thick web of sharing resources that’s been the human mainstay for millennia, all our material needs and more are now mediated through paid relationships.
In addition to this basic isolation, the rich amidst us have several other specific challenges that keep them separate from others.
Does Anyone Really Love Me? Anyone who has lots of money can never truly know who is there because they love them, and who is there because they can get benefit from being near someone with money. Whether it’s friends, lovers, or fundraisers, unless they have their own financial security, the possibility that their friendliness is instrumental, designed to get money, would be so difficult to dispel enough so that the love can be relaxed into completely.
Can I Trust Anyone? A very related unease is an ongoing anxiety about how honest people can be when the temptation exists of getting more access to resources through a rich person’s assets. Some months ago I had the occasion to do some coaching for a man who has significant access to resources based on an invention he designed. I remember being touched and saddened to notice his level of anxiety around an incident of this kind, and by his sense that this kind of anxiety was an inevitable part of his life.
Can I Be Seen? Given how much value is attached to money in our modern societies, anyone with access to money is likely surrounded with people who envy them. People with privilege are often brought up to hide whatever struggle they may have (about which more in a moment), but on top of that the circumstances and the cultural context often render their struggles invisible. I had my own tiny experience of this dynamic some years back. Although my own access to material resources is fairly limited, I know I have significantly more than huge portions of the human population, and even relative to many, many people in the US, where I live. I had a housemate who came from and lived in poverty. Our shared living, which lasted only a few months, destroyed our previous friendship. When we were being facilitated by a third person to come to amicable closure, my former friend was adamant that I wasn’t struggling at all during those awful months we lived together. She simply couldn’t see it, even when I named it.
Am I Humanly Acceptable? I truly don’t know how prevalent the experience of guilt or shame is about having so many more resources than others. I know it exists at least for some people, based on my interactions with them as well as what I’ve read about the dynamics of privilege. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people with resources believe that those without resources are there because of their own doing. I imagine every human heart would be crushed at the recognition that one’s own resources are there in stark contrast, and almost invariably at the expense of, the resources of others. In order to cope with this reality, some theory that “justifies” the vastly unequal distribution of resources in the world must be created. Such a theory then serves as a defense, protecting the heart from the agony, and serving to make sense of one’s own humanity. Speaking for myself, I know I have my own way of accepting my relative privilege. I make peace with it in two ways. One is that I trust my overall intention of stewarding my resources for the benefit of all, because I’ve dedicated my life to this vision. The other is that I happen to be an exquisitely sensitive and somewhat traumatized organism that requires a fair amount of complex health-promoting expenses to be able to thrive enough to do the work I do. And even knowing this, it’s not simple. If nothing else, I am so clear that many fellow humans struggle with equal sensitivities and don’t have access to the support structures I have created for myself, and therefore likely cannot dedicate themselves to any cause other than surviving.
The difficulty is far from purely internal. Just as much as the rich are seen with envy, they are also viewed with judgment, which leads to nasty joking, endless gossiping, and attribution of lack of care. I often wonder what it would be like for a person to know that anyone they interact with is likely to be judging them, wondering about their motives and choices. I imagine if more people understood these experiences, there would be less envy.
Can I Have Peers? When one person has access to resources, that power means they often can, in principle, deliver unpleasant consequences to those with fewer resources. This, and the fact that all of us, rich and poor alike, are usually trained to defer to those with more resources than us, means that a person with resources is likely to be surrounded with deference. My own experience of this kind of deference has been painful enough, and I don’t have nearly the kinds of resources others have. I have a visceral experience of the grief of being deprived of the meaningful exchange of equals with so many people I come in contact with. I am not surprised that people with resources end up choosing each other as friends and lovers. If nothing else, this is a way they can have instant understanding and a sense of equality without much effort.
Growing Up Rich
My experience of hearing stories from people raised in high privilege is limited. Those people whose stories I did hear told of brutal upbringings. At first I was surprised. Then I wasn’t. As skewed and small as my sample has been, and I know it may not be generalizable, these stories made enormous sense to me. The same kind of sense that has led me to conclude that boys, despite everything I am aware of that’s done to girls, get worse treatment. Anyone who is raised to be in a position of dominance in relation to others must be made to overcome what I believe is a natural aversion to getting any advantage at the expense of another. In order to tolerate the suffering of others, we must become numb enough to our own humanity and our own suffering. Both boys and people with privilege of both genders are taught to hide and manage their own feelings and human experience to a degree that I feel immense sorrow about, for them and for the rest of us. For them, because I want everyone to have full access to their heart. For the rest of us, because such numbness interferes with the spontaneous flow of empathy and care that would otherwise prevent harm from being inflicted on others. Indeed, research shows that the rich have less empathy than those of lower classes.
The Weight of Resources
As a final aspect of the challenge of being rich, I am reflecting on what access to so much resource brings with it. I remember, and still often experience, the sense of utter overwhelm and helplessness when I first moved to this country and saw the unbelievable range of options available in even the most basic supermarket. I know it now to be choice without much meaning. I remember a time when I was involved with a major remodeling project and the barrage of decisions that needed to be made about matters that ultimately didn’t interest me much. For anyone with truly significant resources, I imagine this weight multiplied many-fold, without adding much to the actual quality of living.
In addition to choosing and acquiring, the resources also need to be managed. Of course, with sufficient money, a person would have a whole team of people managing every aspect of their resources. I doubt this would bring much peace, as all of the dynamics I mentioned earlier would apply in those relationships. They would all be people hired to manage resources they themselves don’t have, which would bring the specter of envy, deference, and anxiety.
Lastly, and no less important, I know from myself how much of who I am, including what I most appreciate about who I have become, is based on being faced with constraints and difficulties. Not having to struggle to make ends meet, or to find meaningful work, or to gain others’ respect would simply provide fewer opportunities for learning, for self-reflection, and for moral and spiritual growth.
This brings me, once again, to this troubling finding about the rich having less empathy than the poor. In addition to the potential effect of a dehumanizing upbringing, the very access to resources and the resulting isolation breed lack of empathy. We all need each other for our survival. The rich among us can mask that need more easily with money. When we can pay for something, we can more easily forget that some other human being made it, and therefore that we depend on that human being even when we pay for their work. When we are reminded of our need for each other to satisfy our basic needs, we learn much more easily how to be in relationship, how to know when we can ask and when not, how to understand another person’s suffering, and when to offer our own generosity. I am grateful for the circumstances of my life that provided me with enough to not suffer the trauma and horror of poverty, and with little enough so that I know so firmly my place in the web of life and have such easy access to empathy and generosity.