What Constitutes Our True Wealth?

The familiar ad asks, “What’s in your wallet?” A better question to ask is this: “What constitutes your true wealth—on a personal and a communal level?”

Scott Russell Sanders, distinguished professor emeritus of English at Indiana University, has written an article that explores that question. The article, “An Economy of False Profits,” appeared in the Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2018 issue. Sanders argues that “our national allegiance to the monetary bottom line” threatens to negate other important values in society. In this country (and elsewhere) we have been conditioned to think of value in overwhelmingly economic language, that is, in terms of what can be measured in money—whether it is stock markets, salaries, profits and losses, sales figures for the holiday, box office yields, or auction prices for paintings.

We have been taught to believe that the higher the Gross Domestic Product, the better. But the GDP is misleading since it measures only the market value of goods and services produced in a given period. Sanders says, “As gauged by its effect on the GDP, the opioid epidemic has been good for the economy, and so has the Iraq War.”

Sanders maintains that owners of financial wealth look after their interests “ruthlessly.” For example, the health care industry has nearly 3,000 lobbyists on Capitol Hill. The pharmaceutical and health services industry over the last 20 years spent nearly $4 billion in lobbying. Similar facts could be said about the oil and gas industry, insurance companies, telecom services, and other major sectors of the economy.

It is logical, Sander writes, that if financial wealth is our greatest good than “any constraint on the pursuit of money is bad.” He gives the example of the burning of coal, a major industry in his home state of Indiana. Since the 19th Century physicians have known that “coal smoke is toxic.” It poses numerous health risks: black lung disease, asthma, neurological damage, cardiovascular disease, kidney dysfunctions, and various cancers. Given this knowledge, why hasn’t government banned the burning of coal? One elected official opposed regulations against coal, saying, “low-cost energy is vital to our economy. We must continue to oppose overreaching schemes of the EPA until we bring this war on coal to an end.” Is our economy more important than our environment?

What other values are we sacrificing to the “cult of money” or to the economy besides health? Sanders lists a few more:

+ We are sacrificing beauty. “We are treating Earth as a warehouse of raw materials for exploitation and as a dump for waste.”

+ We are sacrificing democracy. The Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that political spending by corporations was protected by the First Amendment. Says Sanders, we are “handing our elections to the highest bidders.”

+ We are sacrificing community. By allowing gross inequalities in financial wealth, we are losing our sense that we are living in a shared world with responsibilities for one another.

My niece Melannie sent me this photo from her recent hike in the Alps. It raises the question: How much is beauty worth?

Sanders expresses concern for tax cuts that drain funds for schools, parks, libraries, and other public goods. Financial wealth matters, of course, says Sanders, but it already has “more than enough advocates. It is the wealth we share that needs defenders.”

Sanders’ words made a deep impact on me. They raised questions like these:

* Who lobbies for public goods such as schools, parks, clear air, clean water, the arts, wildlife? Who lobbies against legal injustice, the suffering of animals, the extinction of certain species?

* Do I give any evidence that I have bought into the “cult of money”? What constitutes my wealth?

* What would Jesus say about these things? OR what has he already said about these things? Do Jesus’ teachings and example have relevance for these issues?

* What does the Catholic Church (most recently Pope Francis) say about economic and environmental issues?

I encourage your reflection and I welcome your comments!

A retreatant recently directed me to a singer from Minnesota, Sara Thomsen. Today’s song, “By Breath,” is from one of her CD’s. The refrain is: By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit we are all one… The verses sing of air… water… earth… and fire. I think her music is quite beautiful. And the photos are lovely too.

Please feel free to respond below to this reflection, the questions, or the song. I love hearing from you!

No Comments

  1. Deirdre Lewis on November 26, 2018 at 4:43 am

    Beautiful song! She has a lovely voice.
    Physicists say we are all made of star stuff. I like to think we are all made of God stuff!

  2. Kathleen Magiera on November 26, 2018 at 5:44 am

    Good Morning Sr. Melanie!

    The song is amazing. I read the phrase “Todos dios es” over the weekend (All is God). It seems to fit in with the song and your reflection. The Holy Spirit seems to be repeating herself to me.

    Thanks be to God.


  3. Barb on November 26, 2018 at 6:27 am

    Enjoyed the song and the reflection. Thank you Sister Melanie for starting our Monday’s out in such a beautiful way. Have a wonderful day!

  4. Denise on November 26, 2018 at 7:00 am

    Dear Sister,
    I see people rushing about, especially at this time of the year, gathering more things to themselves. I ask, how much is enough? Will we ever feel satisfied?
    To me, that’s the real problem we are all facing. In our abundance we have lost our ability to know contentment. I fear we will be unable to recognize beautiful landscapes, hear laughter and ultimately, to feel gratitude. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful practice to cultivate sharing what you have with someone instead of purchasing more?

  5. Marla on November 26, 2018 at 8:27 am

    Thank you for a much needed reflection. Quite timely as some may measure the value of others or themselves by the amount they can spend on the gifts they give. The photo is beautiful. In it are seen true gifts and real riches of beauty we did not create or build.

  6. Ann Sardegna on November 26, 2018 at 8:43 am

    Dear Sr Melannie,
    I really enjoyed today’s reflection— it gives me much food for thoughts that I have wondered about for a long time…..what are we doing to preserve this earth for future generations??? Some people are trying to help us do that— others choose to I ignore the messages……we pray and do our best in our corner of the planet.
    I love Sara Thomsen’s song and will be Sharing it with others. I was fortunate to hear her concert a few years ago at Siena Center
    in Racine, WI.
    Also, I met you there on Oct. 25, 2018 for your evening presentation.
    I hope to come to one of your retreats if you come to Siena again.

    Many Blessings on you and your Sisters this Advent Season and beyond!
    Thank you for Sharing your inspirations from the Holy Spirit !
    Ann —Germantown WI

  7. MARY on November 26, 2018 at 9:18 am

    I think of the Feeding of the 4000 in the synoptic gospels and the phrase that always speaks to me is: “they ate till they were satisfied”. While pondering that just now, it occured to me that perhaps the majority of Americans don’t know what it feels to eat till just satisfied because they are eating the wrong food. Addictive food never gives you the feeling of enough and it seems that is what is currently happening in our society today….they are eating that which is addictive.

    And then I wonder if people have such low esteem that they have to keep getting more, more, more in order to prove how important they are.

    I love the image that we really are all breathing in and out the very same air…..how much more intimate can we get?

  8. Joan M. on November 26, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for a wonderful reflection. I find it so sad that wealth and things come before people and the environment in the eyes and hearts of so many people. My trust is in God, or I would despair.
    God Bless you Sister Melanie!

  9. Jean on November 26, 2018 at 9:33 am

    Good Morning Sister Melannie,
    Another super way to start the week.
    Thank you for all you do to make that happen for so many.

  10. Terry on November 26, 2018 at 9:44 am

    When thinking of the word and concept of “wealth” I have to start with something so simplistic and obvious: our HEALTH is our wealth first and foremost. As I type this message I’m struggling through runny nose, cough, sneeze, chills and body aches. (And I only have a nasty cold!) By default our ideas of creativity and purpose get set off to the side and the condition of our ill health encompasses us and becomes front and center. The bottom line is that if we will choose good health as our personal and communal goal then we can more easily utilize our God-given talents to help others in making our world better. Now try to convince lobbyists and legislators of this. Take money out of the meaning of wealth and we can do so much more for each other, can’t we?
    *The first wealth is health – Ralph Waldo Emerson
    *It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver – Mahatma Gandhi

  11. Terri Butel on November 26, 2018 at 10:48 am

    I’m grateful for your comment about the GDP not being a great measure of wealth, particularly your references to the opioid epidemic and Iraq war – perspectives we would not have been given in the nightly news! Thank you for the questions for reflection; I’ll be “chewing” on these for awhile!

  12. Mary Therese on November 26, 2018 at 11:29 am

    How timely to read this after the dismal environmental report that was released on Black Friday by this current administration. (Perhaps the hope was people would be so distracted by shopping and they wouldn’t hear this news.) However, I know so many people with hearts of gold working every day to protect our planet, whether it be by walking to work one day a week to reduce her fossil fuel use (She’s prays for the earth during this inconvenient, but important walk) to another friend who recycles every scrap of paper and plastic that filters through her life. Thank you for this reflection today. It gives me more determination to do my part to pass on a better earth to my descendants. I love the song, and especially the pictures. Thank you Sister Melannie! Sharing on FB!

  13. Diane Assalone on November 27, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    The song tallies well with Richard Rohr’s piece on Bonaventure today—making joyful room for everything in one divine circle of life.
    Beautiful music. Thanks❤️

  14. Lisa on November 29, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    I have been very poverty stricken in my life and believe me, it’s very
    difficult to share or help anyone when there’s nothing “in your wallet”!

  15. Annie on November 30, 2018 at 12:56 am

    Thank you for this very timely topic! We so desperately need to hear it. I think sometimes people think they can “have it all” —a very comfortable lifestyle and the earth’s natural unspoiled beauty— but there is a price for everything. Hopefully we will cherish more wisely what we have before we lose and destroy what we have left.

    We also need to realize that wildlife and the rest of God’s creation has a purpose for being that is beyond us; it is not here to just serve our needs.

  16. Jean Canatsey on December 1, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    Dear Sr. Melanie,
    What a timely topic. I get so annoyed that the bottom line always seems to be money. If we can no longer breath because we’ve cut down all the trees and paved over the good earth they stood on-money won’t mean very much. I remember pulling into a Walmart parking lot a few years ago and pulling right back out because trees were being pulled out by the roots and fed into a chipper to make room for more cars. We cried for the trees…..

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