Volume 1 Number 3
We Need to Rediscover Where Real Riches Lie
01 November 1987
To amend Winston Churchill's words about the Battle of Britain, never in the course of human history has so much been owed by so many to so few.
By GRAHAM TURNER
There is one incontestable fact about the whole of the developed world: never have so many of its people been so rich. What is more, there is every indication that they will become even richer in the years ahead. As parents die and their houses are sold at vastly inflated prices by children who already own their own homes, great cataracts of cash will continue to pour into the economy. And, of course, consumer credit will continue to keep the appearance of wealth well ahead of the reality. To amend Winston Churchill's words about the Battle of Britain, never in the course of human history has so much been owed by so many to so few.
But what have we paid for our riches? Len Murray, then General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress, once remarked to me that there is nothing for which we pay so much as money. The Swiss theologian Calvin, as might have been expected, also had something to say on the subject. `Let those who have abundance,' he wrote, `remember that they are surrounded by thorns, and let them take great care not to be pricked by them.'
We are all spattered by the blood from those thorns. Greed and speed are natural running-mates. In the pursuit of material gain, far from following the injunction of the Anglican Communion Service to `honour all men and seek the common good', we dishonour those who are of no immediate use to us in that pursuit, and would not recognize a common (or, for that matter, an uncommon) good if we saw one. Gentleness is an increasingly rare commodity. Our world is full of people who have squandered their own humanity in the pursuit of personal ambition.
From time to time, I get caught up in that frame of mind myself. I remember one shameful experience when, driving home after a hectically busy day, I came upon a mother and her children riding a string of ponies along a narrow country road. I gave them time, half a minute at the outside, to get out of my way, but they didn't. Ludicrously impatient, I tried to squeeze by. Not surprisingly, mother and children panicked. Fortunately, no one was hurt,but I was left holding my head in self-disgust. All I could do was offer an abject apology.
But the enormous growth of our wealth has had other and wider consequences. In Britain, at least, it has produced the greatest upheaval in our class structure since the Industrial Revolution. Before the 1939-45 War, 75 per cent of Britons counted themselves working-class. Now, two-thirds think of themselves as middle-class.
At the same time, binding collective loyalties have become weaker. Allegiance to political parties has become less firm, trade union membership has slumped, monasteries have been emptying. Having lived through almost three-quarters of a century of war, depression and economic reconstruction, where collective action was often a matter of survival, we are seeing a resurgence of rampant individualism.
All of this, combined with much greater social mobility, has left many people with shallow roots, deeply uneasy about where they fit into the social structure and with precious little sense of community or, indeed, any allegiance other than to their immediate family, to which they retire from life's frantic pace as if to an underground bunker. For too many of us, the question `Who is my neighbour?' has become a practical rather than a philosophical one. Our social life is marked by an atmosphere of conviviality without intimacy. We have lost not only gentleness but also a sense of belonging.
A good deal has been said, to my mind rather tediously, about `being' being more important than `doing'. Peter Ball, a monk who is also Anglican Bishop of Lewes, maintains that belonging comes before and largely determines being, because it is what we belong to and lay down our lives for which makes us what we are. Without a sense of belonging, he believes, we wither as people. He adds that `individual' is not a Christian word. The Christian word is `person'. The point is made most starkly if we describe the Holy Trinity as being made up of God in three individuals. In the Bishop's view, isolation is the great disease of the Western world.
Again I feel the truth of what he says for myself. I spend much of my time working alone and I live in an isolated place, with our nearest neighbour a quarter of a mile away. Since I am also, by nature, a loner, it is only too easy to avoid any deep commitment to people not closely (and profitably!) connected with my work. And I have felt for myself the impoverishment of spirit which such a deliberate act of isolation brings.
In a world uneasily poised between naked ambition and the fear of catastrophe, where greed stalks the land like a plague, we need to rediscover where real riches lie, to cherish and practise reverence and gentleness, to lay down our lives for others but also to remember that - if we are to become human beings - we need them more than they need us. Jews do not bless an act of giving, because they believe it is the recipient who is giving the gift. And, for those afflicted by the fear of death, it is as well to remember St Francis's observation that those who die to self are already living in eternity.
Graham Turner is a freelance journalist, writing regularly for the `Sunday Telegraph' and the `Daily Mail', London.