The Midas Touch

May 2, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

A king who gets one wish granted by a thankful guest, wishes for everything he touches to turn to gold. It seems like a wonderful gift until his food is inedible and his drink turns solid -- and worse, his daughter runs into his arms and becomes a lifeless golden statue. The king begs to have the wish undone, as he now understands it to be a curse. It’s a fable, a cautionary tale told for thousands of years that gives rise to an expression, “the Midas touch,” which is generally meant to be a compliment meaning “everything that guy touches turns to gold” – he has a great head for business. He has a gift for accumulating wealth. But it’s funny that when we use that expression, we don’t seem to remember how King Midas begged to have his gift undone, how he realized all too quickly that too much gold is life-destroying.

So we’ll leave that for a moment and come back to King Midas later..

I have been watching this show on TLC called “Hoarding.” Perhaps you have found yourself similarly fascinated by this series (or the similar series, “Hoarders” on the A&E channel), whose sensationalistic subtitle is “Buried Alive!” It is about people with a psychological disorder that causes them to compulsively accumulate, and to save, material possessions to the extent that they are unable to move freely through their own homes or use the rooms in their houses for their intended purpose. The kitchen, for instance, is piled so high with everything from canned goods to Tupperware containers to years and years of clipped coupons piled in baskets to God knows what else – sometimes even garbage and refuse that the hoarder cannot bear to part with – that the refrigerator, sink, and stove are completely buried. The dining room table lies hidden under a five foot stack of crafting materials, purchased with the intention to do a fun new project but never touched, or old tax returns, or laundry.

To get through their homes, hoarders pick their way through intricate pathways through halls and up stairs, often stepping on their own belongings as they go, and sleeping in small nests on the floor away from spouses who fend for themselves in other rooms. Confronted with their dysfunction by family members, they get to the point of being ready to accept help and they weep as they show social workers or psychologists their shameful secret and begin the slow and difficult process of reclaiming their space. It is a heart-wrenching show. I am not sure why I like it so much, except that I am very moved by the level of compassion shown by friends and family members who remain in loving and supportive relationship with the hoarders, as frustrated and alienated as they have become by their behaviors. I am also heartened by the good work the psychologists are able to do with these suffering individuals – respecting their fears and inevitably tracing back the origins of their compulsion to a traumatic loss of some sort.

I also like that no one ever just goes in with a garbage bag to the home of a hoarder and starts tossing out belongings; there is always a careful, caring process by which the hoarder gets to consider each and every possession that goes out the door in a bag, even something as seemingly useless as a broken piece of ceramic. What we learn is that each thing represents a relationship, a memory, a dream or plan unrealized but still held onto, and that it will take time and effort and much support for that person to start to let go of those piles and piles of “stuff” that help them feel secure.

So there is all of that but I will also admit that there is a voyeuristic thrill in going into the homes of people with extreme hoarding disorder and seeing the shocking condition of their dwelling places. For those of us with a tendency to accumulate clutter in our own homes, there can be a sense of relief, a “Thank God I’ve never gotten THAT bad” factor. The show can be an inspiration, too, or a bit of a wake-up call about how any of us can become too attached to our Stuff. I was recently encouraged by “Hoarding” to pack up and give away twelve boxes of small household goods and books and six garbage bags full of clothing over the course of this winter (I realized as I packed up the boxes that I had purchased a huge amount of it at church fairs, actually!).

“Hoarding: Buried Alive” elicits sympathy and amazement: we know, watching it, that there is something very wrong with a person who has to painstakingly pick his way around his house because his material possessions have taken over almost every square foot of living space. This is obviously a form of mental illness. It is tragic. This person needs help. This person has hoarding disorder.

And yet what would we call it if that same person kept an immaculate home but who stored up billions of dollars in financial assets in the bank, assets that made him so wealthy that he could never spend anywhere near that amount of money in his lifetime, even if he supported his entire extended family in lavish style and made generous gifts to many philanthropic organizations?

We call it success. We call it “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

We call it Bill Gates*, and we look upon it with admiration and sometimes envy, wondering what we would do with a fortune even a tenth as large. We certainly don’t look at it as a psychological disorder.

I wonder, however, how the world would be different if we did; if we looked upon the accumulation of huge amounts of wealth as at least a spiritual disorder and regarded it with the sort of pity and sympathy we feel toward the hoarder who he is being buried alive by his possessions. Because really, is there that much of a difference?

Imagine the television ads for the series we might create to expose this tragedy among us: “The Midas Touch: TLC’s Shocking New Series About The Obscenely Wealthy.” (voice over) “Meet Bill, a software engineer who works seven days a week, owns six homes in six different countries, homes that he often doesn’t visit for years at a time… and billions of dollars that he will never be able to spend. And Jay, a television comedian who owns one hundred and fourteen cars, an investment portfolio that just keeps growing, and a third wife who, despite her most heroic, daily shopping expeditions on Rodeo Drive, cannot even make a dent in his annual earnings. What will happen to these men and to those who love them? Watch ‘The Midas Touch,’ Thursdays at 10 Eastern Standard Time, on the Lifetime Channel.”

Is greed a psychological disorder? A moral disorder? It was named among the Seven Deadly Sins centuries ago, also going by the name covetousness and avarice, but in America it had certainly lost its stigma by the 1980’s. I’m sure you remember the quote made famous by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the iconic 1987 film “Wall Street:” “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The character was based in part on Junk Bond King Michael Milkin, and although he was clearly a villain in the film, he was embraced as a hero by a new generation in finance. Greed is good. We watched “Dynasty” and “Dallas” and exported our lavish expectations abroad, amazing the rest of the world with the possibilities of being super-rich in America.

Greed is good! Everybody get yours, and much more than yours! If you can get away with it, you can get what you want – you deserve it.

If you’ve been watching the Goldman-Sachs show in C-Span this past week, you can see how some of these ethical chickens have come home to roost in the current era. Yes, Goldman-Sachs has been engaging in standard business practice, but business has a moral component as well as a financial one. The good news about this and other similar stories is that people are talking about greed again, asking not only how much is too much, but about predatory lending, profiting off of others’ naivete, looking beyond the merely monetary value of money to the ethics of accumulation.

And so again I wonder how things would be different if we regarded extreme displays and accumulation of wealth as a sickness deserving of pity rather than an admirable achievement. Historically, it has been the rage of the suffering under-classes who rebelled against the super-rich through violent revolutions, but what about a quiet, non-violent revolution that simply looked at obscene wealth as just that: obscene? Or at least in very bad taste?

Instead of jockeying for favor among the very wealthy, what if someone turned down a weekend on a yacht because they didn’t want to be associated with that kind of excess, and told their friends so?

What if a mom didn’t allow her children to play at the home of the people who own eight cars and whose home took up a full city block because she was sorry, but she didn’t want her child to be exposed to that kind of perverse value system? What if she shared that decision with her social circle?

What if we showed pity and charity to the extremely rich and greedy and assumed that they need help, not validation?

Jesus understood what was at the heart of the problem: greed is nothing more than a reaction to the fear of mortality, an attempt to store up riches on earth to assuage the anxiety of knowing that that life is temporary. “Consider the lilies of the field,” he said. “They don’t have 401Ks or 403Bs or holdings in the stock market or anything to protect them from the reality of their mortality. And they do just fine. They are beloved of God.” Looked at one way, this is a very sentimental teaching and one that, if followed with complete trust, could result in irresponsible behaviors and denial about the importance of saving for the future. The fact is that we are not lilies of the field, and that looking after our financial welfare is a necessary part of adult life:

For instance, I have a UU friend whose sister is a conservative Christian whose husband often takes long periods of time not just unemployed, but not even seeking employment. The sister and her husband are constantly re-affirming their belief that “God will provide,” that they trust in the Lord to meet their needs, and that they’re not concerned about material things. However, they are regularly after my friend and her husband for loans (which are never repaid), and also frequently express their own judgment about how “rich” (and, by association, somehow spiritually inferior) my friend and her husband are. That’s not fair, either. We must all develop our own relationship with money and have integrity about it.

On the other hand, it is a poignant and challenging teaching. “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, but I tell you, even Solomon in his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Which of you by worrying can add an hour to the span of your life?” Go ahead and worry, Jesus is saying, but just know that riches are no more security against calamity or mortality than filling one’s bedroom with layers of clothes, debris, crafting projects, memorabilia, recyclables, bags of cat litter or broken antiques. We are born with closed little fists and we die with open hands, bringing nothing with us but the deeds we have done and the good or bad name we have earned in our time alive. It may be that greed is just a form of terror working itself out as financial accretion. Shouldn’t we be concerned about anyone who obviously suffers that much fear?

Looking back again at the Greek story of King Midas, there is a clue in the name of the King’s daughter who turns to lifeless gold: her name is Zoe, which means “life.” Greed, which begins as hunger for money to purchase those things that seem to create a better, literally and figuratively richer life, winds up stultifying it, immobilizing it, stilling and smothering it until it is a cold, inert thing not lived but merely observed.

Research has shown again and again that the more people earn, the more their expenses increase so that it is very rare for any individual to feel that he or she ever earns “enough” money to fulfill all their dreams. We have seen the harm it can do, the lives it has destroyed, the victims it has ensnared. Have pity on the greedy. Have pity on any of us when we get caught up in the spirit of entitlement, of want want want, of more more more. Pity the greedy, for greed is born of fear, and the greedy one is one who cannot be grateful for what he or she has and what is. Greed and gratitude cannot live in the same heart. There is only room for one.

* Preacher’s Commentary: Bill Gates was probably a bad example here, as his wealth came not merely from seeking profits but from brilliant innovation and creativity—and whose philanthropic generosity is well-documented. I wish I had come up with an example of someone who is publicly “as rich as Croesus” (another Greek king with greed issues!) but whose fortune was made in a less creative, and frankly more crass, way. I wish I had thought to mention Paul Newman, who made enough money as a movie actor to support himself in a fine style, but who was still interested in working after retirement and building a profitable business enterprise which he did with the hugely successful brand Newman’s Own. In a business decision that is the very opposite of greedy, Mr. Newman gave 100% of his profits to charitable organizations. I believe that Mr. Newman (now deceased) provides a wonderful model for morality in business.