Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Culture of Envy is Supplanting the American Dream

Some fatal diseases slowly cripple the body and cause vital organs to gradually deteriorate. Their symptoms can go unnoticed for years until it is too late. It seems our nation is in the early stages of a societal ill that needs to be healed, or it will cause the soul of our society to decay.

I'm speaking of the growing culture of envy that is spreading across the rhetoric and minds of our citizens. While politically, class warfare is an effective approach that galvanizes emotions and movements, the long-term effect is destructive to the health of a nation.

Envy is one of those silent, destructive forces that is consistently underestimated. In the Christian faith the first prominently recorded sin after mankind's fall was rooted in envy. It was envy that led Cain to kill his brother Abel and that drove Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery.

"A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones." Proverbs 14:30

Even outside of faith traditions, there are many intellectual and cultural works, such Othello, Tale of Two Cities and even Dumb & Dumber, that highlight examples of how envy leads to destructive behavior and unhappy lives. And certainly we've all seen directly envy's hurtful influences within our families, neighborhoods or schools growing up.

The constant whispers of "Why him?" "Why her?" "What about me?" fester in today's culture. The rich and wealthy are villainized and the public discourse has evolved to project an assumption that most have gained their wealth through illegal or unethical means. This is simply not universally true, and has become a destructive lie.

Of course it's not the wealthy people that you know in your life. It's those other people. Who are these "one percenters"? Or even those in the 3%? The most reviled seem to be investment bankers. Do most people know what investment bankers do? I'm fairly certain that they don't judging from hundreds of conversations that I've had throughout my life revealing common mix up between commercial and investment banking. The people that I know in investment banking are those who, for the most part studied the hardest throughout their lives and are working 100-hour weeks. It is a picture and lifestyle that cause most people to cringe and one that I do not envy.

Also people make choices for the lifestyles and careers they seek and live out. Many of my classmates from graduate school studying public policy were some of the smartest people that I've known, but they chose a career in government or the nonprofit sector because this is where their heart was.

"Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind." Buddha

But investment bankers aren't the typical one-percenters. Many are small business owners who also worked endless days and nights, rode the ups and downs of building a business, and probably failed a few times through bankruptcy and broken families. Others are doctors, who aren't as easy to vilify and possibly sidelined into a protected group of overachievers who are perceived to have earned their wealth through a decade of schooling and helping the sick.

There are real concerns about healthcare, hunger and assisting the poor, but denigrating the wealthy and envying their material wealth is not the answer. The beauty of the American Dream and America is that economic mobility is achievable through hard work, persistence and occasional intelligence. It is this mobility that is unparalleled in history and still attracts people across the globe to immigrate here. Such goals shouldn't be branded as an evil idol or financial success automatically defined as greed. I assume for many financially successful people, it was a by-product of their love for their work or their goal to improve the lives of their children.

"Our envy of others devours us most of all." Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The focus shouldn't be on why are those people rich, what are they doing with their money and why are we not getting some, but maybe how they got there and how I can learn from them. For me, I constantly seek out role models of success. Not financial success, but the ability to change and influence the world whether they are in the business, nonprofit or government sectors.

Building a culture of envy will only lead to the supplanting of the American Dream and creating mediocrity as a baseline. Our nation was built on millions of people seeking to achieve their dreams, so these stories shouldn't be cast aside for those feeling entitled to these dreams through policies or protests. Regardless of who wins in November, let's remove this destructive seed of envy from our nation's rhetoric and political strategies and look towards strengthening our people by asking what can I do for you not what have you done for me.

(Originally posted at Yahoo! Voices here.)

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