Monday, March 2, 2009

Mental Poverty

During my active years of sermon writing I used some short, anecdotal pieces about Hetty Green who was reputed to be the richest woman in America at the end of the 19th Century. I recently came across a biography of Hetty Green, written by Charles Slack. The anecdotal material I read had made it clear that she was eccentric, stingy, crafty, and thoughtless of everyone and everything except herself and her money. While the biography softened my view of her, it remains clear that she was a scheming, wealthy woman who in spite of her great wealth was a lonely and unhappy person. At the turn of the century her net worth was estimated to be between one and two hundred million dollars, which in today’s currency would push a billion. To say she was "frugal" would hardly reflect how much she loved her money.

John J. Cisco of the Cisco Bank loved to tell of the day he looked out the window of his office at 59 Wall Street and saw Hetty stepping off a public coach on Broadway, carrying a bulky parcel. When he greeted her at the door he learned that the parcel contained $200,000 in negotiable bonds. He asked if she did not think it risky to have brought these bonds downtown in a public stage. Cisco said: "You should have hired a carriage." Hetty arched her eyebrow and said: "Perhaps you can afford to ride in a carriage – I cannot!" Hetty Green was way beyond "frugal." Her whole life was about her money. She lived as if she were poor, and in spite of her immense wealth, I suppose she was "mentally poor."

Many people in our culture live in the fear that they will not have enough to last them to the end of the row, or that they will not be able to leave a respectable bequest to their heirs. Laboring under the fear that there will not be enough we tend to develop "mental poverty." This is a malady that is impervious to facts to the contrary. The nagging fear that there will not be enough begets a degree of anxiety which puts a shadow over all of life. There are many people with modest, but adequate, assets who suffer the "Hetty Green Syndrome." If you believe you are poor and live as if you are poor, then you are poor – no matter how much money you have.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Norman Neaves, once told a story that illustrates how we can be in the shadow of plenty and live as if we are poverty stricken.

Many years ago there was a man who lived in the Netherlands who wanted to immigrate to America. He finally saved enough money to buy a ticket to America in steerage. He had very little money left over, but he took what was left and bought all kinds of simple foods to eat on the trip.

During the voyage, when everyone else was going to the dining halls, he would slip away to his tiny room way down below and munch on whatever he could find in one of his suitcases. After awhile, it started to get to him. There were all of these sumptuous spreads of food in the dining halls from breakfast in the morning until dinner late at night, and all he had to eat were crackers and cookies and a few other imperishables. Each day his resentment grew as he watched all the other people go to the dining hall. He kept telling himself he was poor and that he did not have money like everyone else and that this was the very best he could do.

On next to the last day of the trip, he happened to be talking with another man who was also traveling all by himself. The man looked at his watch and said, "Oh my goodness, it’s almost noon. We better hurry or we’re not going to get any lunch." And the man had to say to him, "I’m sorry, but I will not be able to go. I do not have enough money to buy lunch today." The man said, "What do you mean you don’t have enough money to buy lunch? Do you not know it is included in the price of your ticket?" The fellow was absolutely dumbfounded because he did not know that. He had traveled all the way across the ocean eating crackers and cookies when he could have been eating at the table with everyone else.

There are people who live in poverty – actual poverty. Some of them are in our own city, county, and state. Some of them are on the other side of the world, and some of them are on the other side of town. They are the poor and oppressed about whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 25. But almost all of you who read this column are not poor; but some of you suffer "mental poverty" and live in fear that there is not enough. If you fit into that category, may you never actually become as poor as you imagine yourself to be. Learn to celebrate living in a land where there is enough. Use what you have. Don't sit on it. Spend it or give it away, but don"t fall in love with it, because you are not going to be able to take it with you when you leave on the "Long Journey."