The Common Good

'... And You Can, Too!' Greed and Every Possible Possibility

The first sign I had a problem was when I came across Candy Chang’s “Confessions” project in 2012. It was an interactive art installment on the Las Vegas strip that invited people to come in and confess their deepest secrets anonymously. Those secrets would then be added to a visual art display. It was engaging, unexpected, relevant, discussion-provoking. It was fun.

 Inspirational poster, BlueLela / Shutterstock.com
Inspirational poster, BlueLela / Shutterstock.com

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I hated it.

More correctly, I loved it; and hated myself for not actively doing something similar. I wondered how to implement a version of this idea among colleagues and in office hallways of my organization at the time; I considered “art-bombing” the streets of my city with thought-provoking questions; I spent several moments over the next several weeks seriously questioning whether I should drop everything to focus on Chang-style installations, because I could, and I liked it, and it would work, so I should be doing it. Nothing else I was currently doing mattered. Not without this one thing more.

Welcome to an exhaustive (and exhausting) self-talk: the fixation on never doing enough. Until very recently, I thought this way almost all the time. Somehow — accidentally, almost imperceptibly — years of nurturing my professional and creative pursuits was nurturing something else, as well. It became nearly impossible for me to see work that I admired and appreciated and to not simultaneously think, “I should be doing that, too.”

Which is, simply put, raging covetousness.

I am not alone in this. I live in Washington, D.C., and have seen this sly covetousness at work in the lives of many, many of my peers — and wonder if some version of this rings true for others. This kind of greed is much more bright and optimistic than you would expect sin to be, initially. It can look like those day-dreamy articles, “25 Places Every Person MUST Go Before They Are 30;” or assuming that everyone has at least one “passion project” in addition to their day job; or encouraging each other to live a fully activated life. A friend once remarked that I knew enough people in the city that I should build my own movement (toward what end was an afterthought, apparently. I could have a "following" of people if I tried, so why didn’t I?).

This greed is the lie that if you can be doing more, being more, going farther than you are, you should be. This greed is the persistent cultural whisper, “... and you can, too!”

None of these opportunity-seizing moments are problematic on their own. But as they accumulate on an individual life, they begin to taste like a bucket list run rampant. This is a greed of opportunity. Regardless of what we already have, greed — of any stripe — feeds a constant, restless craving for more. Greed is impossible to be satisfied. Greed asks "what more can I get?" instead of "what is enough?" The greed of opportunity knows You Only Live Once, and demands you wring everything you possibly can from it.

In other words, opportunity greed is a state of perpetual Fear of Better Options (FOBO). In its more confident form, it is IOBO — Insistence on Better Options.

Now, greed traditionally defined relates to material wealth. But if the Seven Deadly Sins were meant to describe sins inherent to the human condition, it is worth considering whether these sins would still exist in human societies in which their assumed outworkings do not apply. Greed is obsession with having more than enough — “enough” being an arbitrary and conveniently flexible personal standard. Could a society without currency, or without an obsession with material wealth, still exhibit greed? What might that look like?

I think it might look like today’s FOBO. It is no accident that this kind of greed is most obviously displayed among the privileged of my generation, for whom some degree of disposable income is assumed. Monetary greed is easy to spot and to condemn — never more so than this current moment, when Wall Street CEOs get ever-higher bonuses and continue to evade federal penalties, while income inequality is at a historic high and more than 46 million Americans are stuck at or below the poverty line. The devastating effects of a money- and power-greedy culture are playing out for us in real time. Unsurprisingly, it is fairly unusual to meet a professional twentysomething today whose life fixation is to amass huge wealth.

But opportunity greed has its dangers, too. Like all sin, greed is made up of holy and good ingredients bent far away from their proper function. It’s not what we desire that is problematic.

Our cultural gospel of “... and you can, too!” has real historical value and purpose. Social mobility in America depends upon it, as does economic justice. Peaceful democracy, racial reconciliation, religious freedom, comprehensive immigration reform, environmental sustainability, marriage equality, innovation, and all other positive social movements rely on this belief. I subscribe to its value, too: I’ve helped build two projects in D.C., focused on providing access to creative opportunities and vocational tools for all residents in D.C., that have “... and you can, too!” literally written into their DNA.

But the dark side of a cultural fixation with opportunity is a hunger to acquire and achieve every possible possibility. The sin of greed is that we become incapable of not desiring more. Greed is a problem of excess, and when followed as gospel, what may begin as honorable, justice-minded impulses for more can lead individuals, institutions, and societies into restless, eternal dissatisfaction.

One reason material greed is labeled as sin is because of finite resources; a CEO cannot amass excessive amounts of profit without depriving others in their company, nor a country hoard excessive amounts of food without depriving other nations around the globe. I can’t say just how much opportunity greed directly affects our neighbor, beyond being surprisingly contagious. But it unequivocally affects us as individuals — perhaps most of all by disabling our ability to embrace commitment. Not only do we insist on better options, we insist on options period: in our career paths, our passion projects, our vacations, our homes, our relationships. Committing to a fixed career track, or lifelong work with one institution, or one town, or one marriage partner is the most uncomfortable thing many of us can imagine. To those of us waist-deep in opportunity greed, the permanence of closed doors — “if I choose this, I’ll never have (x, y, z)” — is a nearly hellacious prospect. Description: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/JLx6iArPFK5fI3mtjcrelwQr9yaPOEFL045z238ro54gTNQm9rFuDHMjTDBpD4bAFMw4gIal5qMdbUYruRGhi-2i1NhNGSqhs-Loqp9IPEXygxAnj8U6ojTqYwumMA

When we are rendered unable to commit to the blessings of life out of insistence that more and better options must be out there for us to acquire, we have turned the promise of “... and you can, too!” into the insatiable treadmill of “never enough.”

I suspect that when we begin to focus less on more, and more on enough, we will notice the turbines of greedy self-talk slowly winding down. I wonder if a sign of growing in wisdom is our ability to resist the immensely seductive whisper, “... and you can, too!”

For me, I’ll know I’m getting there when I can see the latest Candy Chang installment, and be delighted, and just leave it at that.

You only live once. Let once be enough.

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.

Image: Inspirational poster, BlueLela / Shutterstock.com

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