As this year’s election battles approach, it’s a certainty that the embers of class warfare will be fanned to attract voters’ attention. Those flames of division and resentment may be quelled, perhaps inadvertently, by Richard Watts‘ “Fables of Fortune: What Rich People Have That You Don’t Want” (fablesoffortune.com).
Mr. Watts says that he intended his book to help those who live their lives in pursuit of wealth to recognize the value of what they have and declares: “The wealthiest person is not who has the most but who needs the least.”
Mr. Watts chronicles the descent of the lives and dissolution of the families of the world’s “superrich.” The author personally knows that of which he speaks. For three decades of his legal career, he has served as a financial counselor and confidant for many of the wealthiest people throughout the world - those with assets of $100 million or more.
His book relates actual accounts of a realm in which adult children and their siblings live their lives with calculated chesslike moves, vying for the family’s fortune. He tells of a generation lying in wait for any signs of dementia that might provide an opportunity to gain legal control of parents’ assets. Mr. Watts‘ tales show how families disintegrate as bank accounts and trust funds soar, and he lifts the veil on the emptiness and spiritual hunger that permeate the lives of many who are among the reviled “1 percent.” A steady stream of tabloid stories of self-destruction and suicide among the rich and famous attests to the toll taken in a vacuum of purpose and substance.
But although Mr. Watts conveys his message through the experiences of his wealthy clients, his book is not about wealth - but about a crisis of character and confusion of values that permeate our entire society. In fact, Mr. Watts‘ message echoes that of a sermon that Martin Luther King gave to his congregation 60 years ago when he warned of the danger of confusing the “means by which we live with the purpose for which we live.”
Mr. Watts‘ account of the disintegration of relationships in the midst of wealth is especially powerful because the dynamics of that decay are condensed and exaggerated in the high-stakes arena of the superrich. And he writes with authority and authenticity, speaking from within that culture. He lives his life amid the wealthy. But his message is to those who are fixated on attaining what the wealthy have.
Today the idolatry of money and possessions cuts across boundaries of income and race. It includes the single mother of three who spends $150 a month on her fingernails and the parents of a family of four living on $30,000 a month who shell out $150 for their teenager’s sneakers. Equipped with plastic to bridge the gap between what we want and what we have, we are raising a second generation addicted to the pursuit of possessions.
Parents are so focused on giving their children what they didn’t have that they fail to give them what they did have - relationships and experiences that carry lessons for a fulfilling life. Inundating their children with things is part of a larger problem of perverse parenting, in which the goal is to protect children from all pain and disappointment. Yet experiencing the consequences of wrong decisions and bad behavior, and learning how to overcome and deal with pain are essential to character formation and developing to maturity.
As Mr. Watts admonishes, “With every thing we give to our children, we are taking something away.” Satisfying children’s every wish fosters a culture of entitlement, and there can be no fulfillment in that realm: Possessions that are not the result of a person’s effort are devoid of value.
Mr. Watts‘ book unveils the tragedies that accompany wealth, but it is not about pity or empathy for the wealthy or about money at all. It is a clarion call about the need to clarify values, given to all levels of society - and particularly to those who are entranced by the pursuit of possessions, trying to get what the wealthy have. But as Mr. Watts shows, many of the superrich have everything they want, and many are confused about what they need. And, while others who are in pursuit of the false god of money and possessions can at least be inspired by the illusion that attaining their goal will bring them satisfaction, those who have attained wealth still feel empty and unfulfilled.That is the root of the tragedy of incremental self-destruction and suicide among those who seem to have it all.
Mr. Watts‘ message about moral value and the ethical framework in which people should live their lives is a difficult one to give in an era in which ethics and morality have been, as Pastor Buster Soaries notes, “hijacked by religion.” The genius of Mr. Watts‘ book is that he avoids being dismissed by sneaking the issues of character and values through the back door. He talks about greatness that has nothing to do with what you own but everything to do with who you are as a person. In vivid images and scenarios, he conveys the hunger for a life of purpose and meaning that exists at all levels of society. Above all, he debunks the assumption that having more is synonymous with living better.
• Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
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