Lifelong family friends own more than a thousand acres of land deep in Southern Mississippi, which they refer to as “the estate.” There isn’t a holiday get-together that passes without the family meeting and voting on different issues regarding the property.
It gets messy with eight brothers and sisters each having strong opinions and owning an eighth of the massive estate.
Some of the siblings have long ago moved out of state and want nothing to do with the discord or the small dividend check that comes every quarter from their inheritance.
Others believe their father would never have wanted his children to break relationship over something as petty as property. Yet resentments have grown, angry emails have been written, sides have been taken, and, most of all, relationships have been damaged and probably lost completely.
Sadly, this family’s inheritance story is not rare: those involved just have more money at stake than most of us. Greed, envy, jealousy, and entitlement seem to come out in talks of money and inheritance. Each of us has an idea what is just, what we think we deserve, and what we believe we’re entitled to.
How Far a Billion Dollars Goes
A reporter once asked the ultra-wealthy Oil Magnate John Paul Getty if it was true that his estate was worth, at the time, a billion dollars. Getty remained silent for a minute or two. Eventually he responded: “I suppose so,” he answered, “But remember, a billion dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to.”
Stuart R Strachan Jr.
A few years ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000.
In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them. What did the majority of people choose? Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms. People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.
You’ve Brought Pavement?
Perhaps you’ve heard the humorous story about a man who was about to die so he liquidated all his assets, turning them into gold bricks. He required his family to pack the bricks in two suitcases and bury them with him. When he arrived at the pearly gates St. Peter met him and immediately noted the oddity that this man had come to heaven with luggage. “What’s in the suitcases?” inquired Peter. The man proudly opened his suitcases. Peter stared into them nonplussed, then said “You brought pavement up here? Pavement?”
When We Live By Bread Alone
When we live by bread alone, there is never enough bread, not enough even when we make so much of it that some of it rots away; when we live by bread alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste, and the more we eat the more bitter the taste; when we live by bread alone, we always want more and better bread, as if the bitterness came from the bread itself and not from our living by bread alone.
I could continue with the analogy, but you get my point: living by ‘mundane realities’ and for them alone, we remain restless, and that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, social injustice, and the destruction of the environment as well as constitutes a major obstacle to more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social arrangements.