The saga of the Bernard Madoff debacle, AIG bonuses, and the host of other repugnant behaviors actually reveal a terrible dysfunction in our culture, which has now come to our screeching attention. We are a society that is addicted and ultimately maddened by our obsession with profligate abundance and extravagance. How inconceivable is it that a man who has attained so much success and wealth and earned the rewards of privilege and prestige, feels compelled to ruin himself and his investors in his vainglorious attempt to have yet more? When is enough yet enough?
When one is an addict the answer is never. Regrettably, Madoff is far from alone. We, as a culture, are prone to this addiction. And you need not be wealthy to suffer from this affliction. The scourge of many wealthy may be greed, while the burden of the middle class is runaway materialism. After all, the greed of the elite typically requires relentless consumption by the rest of us. Consumerism is requisite for the ongoing greed. Without it, the wheels fall off the train.
One might argue that lining up well before dawn to be amongst the first to crash through the gate as the doors open on Black Friday of Thanksgiving weekend is simply due to financial needs; the plight of the middle and working class. Surely our economy leaves countless people in tragic peril. Yet, there were undoubtedly individuals in that herd that are driven by the brainwashing of runaway materialism. They may not be sacrificing their sleep solely for diapers or food, but out of their compulsion for the quick and short-lived fix of purchasing.
I am arguing from generality of course, and millions of people fortunately do not align with the cultural illness that I am describing. Yet, many millions do, and their plight needs to be appreciated. The ongoing message that we receive is to buy, buy, buy. It is both overt and subliminal. The pervasive message in our culture is that you'll be happier after you make your next purchase. You'll be more attractive, sexier, smarter—life will be better.
After 9/11, George Bush urged us to get back to normal in one particular way: Go out and shop. In every other way, we were to be seen as a country under attack. But put that aside so long as you can keep the cash register ringing. The American deity is the economy. It is our unifying religion.
What likely began as a master plan of the leaders of the economic universe, an ever- expanding GNP, ultimately trapped the very architects themselves. No longer content to simply be far wealthier than everyone else, they became literally addicted to this need to satiate their egos with more and more. But in the throes of such an addiction, more is never enough. No sooner do you reach the next rung of wealth, than you look longingly upward toward the next tier. Madoff is a sick man; not simply due to the devastation that he unleashed on so many, but because his craving is no different than a junkie prepared to do anything for their next fix.
Greed and rampant materialism are the drugs. And they conspire to deprive us of balanced and joyful lives. They have us distort our lives, neglect our relationships, and impoverish our souls. This dysfunction is as real and as destructive as any other disorder. It contains elements of obsessive/compulsive disorders and at the core renders the individual incapable of living a fruitful life.
The irony is that many of these fallen titans are the very same people that we had so revered. It was only a few moments back into our past when tales of a hundred thousand dollar rug for an office were seen as a testament to one’s success, their bragging rights. The tide of opinion has turned quickly as we now line up to verbally assault those we had recently worshipped. What has changed? Has the precipitous economic downturn recast our values? If so, fine. A sobering reality can shift our values, but it would benefit us to proclaim it as such. If the hero becomes villainous through no change of his or her own then our perspective has grossly shifted. Taking ownership of that shift underscores and substantiates a healthy change.
From this vantage, we can see that a recession, let alone a severe one, begins to look like the plague. With a recession, it is as if the drug dealer has left town for a very long time. And we are left to deal with jonesing. Without the ability to spend and spend, we might come to deal with the gripping question of who we are and how we are living our lives. And hopefully we may redress our imbalance as we break through the addiction. The paradox is, that recession may really be relief from the addiction, in disguise. The pain and loss are real enough, but the opportunity lies in reconsidering how we choose to live.