Money Makes Mean?: The Spiritual Practice of Generosity, 1


If you are unusually self-aware, you might have noticed a very slight feeling of tightening or closing at just the mention of the word. Or maybe, if you're that self-aware, you might have transcended the reactivity that's so common. Research suggests that simply having the idea of money planted in mind has a tendency sometimes to reduce inclinations toward generosity. So I’m taking a risk by talking about money. I’m hoping that knowing about human psychology around money will allow us to decide to override the usual reactivity.

The average income in the world is less than $10,000 a year. Perhaps your household is a little above the world average. Our very wealth itself can make us less generous, if we let it – if we don’t intentionally counter-act the effects of wealth through the practice of generosity.

In one study, experimenters enlisted undergraduates to play monopoly, two players at a time, but with different rules. One randomly selected player started the game with $2,000 of monopoly money, got $200 for passing Go each time, and threw two dice for every move – which, you may recall, is the normal way monopoly is played. Let’s call this player Bob. The other player, let’s call him Bill, started with $1,000, got $100 for passing Go each time, and threw one die for every move.
“The students play for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.”
What happens?

Initially Bob
"reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. 'Hey,' his expression seemed to say, 'This is weird and unfair, but whatever.' Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate....He balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece as makes the circuit – smack, smack, smack – ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang!...As the game nears its finish, [Bob] moves his [piece] faster....He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet [Bill’s] gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash."
Another study
“showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people.”
In one experiment, wealthier people were more likely to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children. If there is such a thing as entitlement culture, it is more often (not always, of course, but more often) the wealthy who feel most entitled. As psychologist Paul Piff concludes,
“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, [jerks]....People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs.”
The extent to which people with money behave as if the world revolves around them was further illustrated in another study. Paul Piff and this research team
“spent three months hanging out at...a gritty, busy corner with a four-way stop....[They] would stake out the intersection at rush hour, crouching behind a bank of shrubs… and catalog the cars that came by, giving each vehicle a grade from one to five. (Five would be a new-model Mercedes, say, and one would be an old battered Honda....) Then the researchers would observe drivers’ behavior. A third of people who drove grade-five cars, Piff found, rolled into the intersection without first coming to a compete stop....‘Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex, and amount of traffic.’"
A similar experiment tested
"drivers’ regard for pedestrians....A researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached it. The results were more staggering....Fully half the grade-five cars cruised right into the crosswalk. ‘It’s like they didn’t even see them,' [said Piff]."

Paul Piff's TED Talk, "Does Money Make You Mean?"

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This is part 1 of 4 of "The Spiritual Practice of Generosity"


This Week's Prayer

Dear Great Unknown,

Some theoretical physicists are now suggesting that there was no big bang, no beginning point of time, and that the age of the universe is infinite. We do not know if this is true. Did our universe have a beginning, about 13.8 billion years ago, or is it eternal? Will it reach an end, or go on forever? We do not know.

We have the experiences of our brief flicker of life; white snows of winters, lush verdant summers; we love, and what we have loved passes away from us; we get and we spend; we struggle and we rest; moments of laughter come, and moments of tears -- all of this within a fleeting life within a context of mystery so profound we cannot even say if it began a very, very long time ago, or never had a beginning at all.

Knowledge is power and power is for doing, and when we set aside doing to enter the space of simply being -- of cherishing what is for what it is rather than its usefulness -- then we have entered the way of not knowing, the way of simple openness to what arises without explaining or categorizing; the way of infinite curiosity, ever unfolding; the space of presence; the space of prayer.

Dear Great Unknown, we are unknowing travelers, sometimes far from home. We journey, explore, enjoy, and hurt. We do harm and seek the joy of harming less. This day holds the “bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty.” It also holds terrible pain and loss and death.

May we use what we know for the sake of love and life, understanding that what we know is never final, always provisional, always, dear Great Unknown, within a context of utterly unknowable mystery.


Drawn by Love toward Love (Instead of Guilt, 4)

We humans do love life – not just our own, I mean. We love the abundantly diverse forms of life. We are built to love life. We are drawn to baby faces of any mammal -- we find them universally cute and adorable. Our positive emotional response toward baby mammals across species helps increase the survival rates of all mammals. We keep plants and flowers in and around our homes. (Our love of flowers is probably connected to the fact that most fruits begin as flowers, and it was crucial for our ancestors to detect and remember plants that would later provide food.) Our natural love for life leads us to sustain life.

Researchers are finding that a nurturing relationship with animals is important in early and middle childhood development (Myers and Saunders in Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations, 2002). Richard Louv finds that modern urban living is producing children with “nature-deficit disorder.” Attention disorders, obesity, depression, and dampened creativity, he argues, result from children spending more hours indoors and fewer hours in unstructured, solitary contact with the natural world (Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, 2005).

We are built to love life, to be drawn to it and want diversity of life around us. Through the centuries, however, we have slowly built up ways of life that separate us from it. We twenty-first century humans have grown accustomed to disconnection, and it won’t be easy to reconnect. It will be even harder for our kids.

Julia Whitty reports:
“Children who play unsupervised in the wild before the age of 11 develop strong environmental ethics. Children exposed only to structured hierarchical play in the wild – through, for example, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, or by hunting or fishing alongside supervising adults – do not. To interact humbly with nature we need to be free and undomesticated in it. Otherwise, we succumb to hubris in maturity.” (Mother Jones, "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," 2006)

Unsupervised in the wild before age 11. I had that. When I was 9 we lived next to woods that went on as far as I could walk in a day. There was one time I got lost back there and was pretty scared for a while, but I did find my own way home eventually. I now look back on that experience as an important part of the development of my capacity for awe – full-scale awe that does have a tinge of fear in it – and wonder and ultimately love for the natural habitats of this planet. And I learned I could trust myself in it.

Not many kids today are so lucky. Today, kids simply left alone in a park for a few hours might get the parent arrested (for example, SEE HERE). Wow.

So it’s going to be hard to find ways to connect with the Earth, with nature, with all the variety of life forms on it – harder than it was for previous generations. It’s hard for us to get out into the wildness and abundance of life of natural habitats. Most of us have gradually developed habits that keep us cut off.

Connecting with life – as with exercising; as with eating well; as with going to bed at a sensible hour so we can get enough sleep; as with maintaining a discipline of journaling, spiritual study, and meditation – feels good. It is a joy. But the inertia of habit sometimes prevents us from doing the things that bring us joy.

Drawn by love, toward love, acts of caring for all beings become as natural as a mother caring for her infant. And just as mothering styles differ, we will have different degrees of caring for all life. Which is just fine, as long as, wherever you are, you’re attuned to the world’s invitation to go just a little further -- in love.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Instead of Guilt"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Following Your Bliss Ain't Easy (Instead of Guilt, 3)

At the end of part 2, The Liberal Pulpit asked:
"Where do you draw the line between the harm you’re willing keep doing and the harm you’ve decided to stop doing?"
Here's where I draw it:

I am a vegetarian. Also, for the last fifteen years, all my clothes – except for socks and underwear – have come from second-hand thrift stores, hand-me downs, and the occasional gift. So I draw the line somewhere north of supporting the environmental degradation of the meat industry and the labor oppression of the textile trade, at least directly.

But I drive a car, fly in airplanes, use some heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, and electric lights all year around. Sometimes I hang my laundry to dry on an indoor clothesline, but sometimes I use the dryer. I eat eggs and dairy, buy foods that are processed, packaged, and imported; and wear shoes that aren’t even tofu.

There’s a lot of harm I’m still doing.

I try to draw the line not where guilt pushes me to, but where it is joyous to do so, where the gladness of simplicity calls. Your discernment about where to draw the line probably yields different results. Following where the spirit’s joy calls. This method is not uniform -- it yields different results for different people -- nor is it easy. "Follow your bliss," Joseph Campbell told us. But following your bliss is a rigorous path and a lot harder than, "Just do any old thing you happen to feel like at the time."

Material things don’t make us happy. We know that. Within six months, at the longest, after even the most exciting material acquisition, a person's overall happiness is back to its baseline level. While we know that material things don't make us happy, it's also true that forcing ourselves to give them up before it feels right to do so won’t make us happy either. Mohandas Gandhi reminds us:
"No sacrifice is worth the name unless it is a joy. Sacrifice and a long face go ill together."
Many religious traditions recognize sacrifice as a spiritual practice. Lent begins on Wednesday, and I do think the Christian tradition of giving something up for lent is a good practice for cultivating spiritual health. Our early ancestors noticed thousands of years ago that, while there is a certain satisfaction in acquiring things, it also, sometimes, feels good to give some of them up.

Other times, the prospect of sacrificing doesn't feel so good -- in which case, as Gandhi cautions us, sacrifice isn't much good as a spiritual practice:
"Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you."
When you want some other condition so much that that the thing no longer has any attraction for you!

Should you, for example, bump that thermostat down from 68 to 67 – or down to 64 during the day and 57 at night? Only if you want some other condition so much that the few extra degrees no longer has any attraction. Only if it feels joyful to be participating just a tiny bit less in climate change and the various harms of fossil fuel use and dependence.

Should you become vegetarian or even vegan? Only if it feels joyful to be participating less in massive cruelty, pain, suffering, and greenhouse-gas production.

Would that feel joyful? Let’s look at how it might.

These steps toward reducing harm will feel joyful insofar as we understand them connecting us with life. Connected to life and this Earth, small acts of care for ecological systems and the sentient beings with whom we share our planet develop our love, expand how loving we are.

Picture someone wearing three sweaters and those mitten-glove-combo things while indoors in their own home -- a single LED lightbulb in the whole house burning, by which they are reading “Household tips from the Amish.” Why would someone do that to themselves if they didn’t have to? They might do it because they understood what they were doing as part of a gentler, more loving relationship with the Earth, and being in that relationship was a source of great joy for them.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Instead of Guilt"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4