As a breakfast diversion, I was watching the Today Show (or maybe Good Morning, America—they all seem the same). One of the segments was about two NFL stars who went undercover for a day as homeless men to learn a bit about the people who live on the streets and to bring awareness to the issue. After airing the video footage, the hosts talked with one of the players in the football locker room, all cleaned up and back in his designer T-shirt, surrounded by jerseys and gear with his name and number on them. The hosts asked about his insights and, with furrowed brows, waxed eloquent about poverty in this country and the plight of people who are homeless. Almost immediately after that segment, they broke into surprised laughter while showing viewers a fancy pink designer handbag, adorned with gold and diamonds, that had sold at auction for $200,000, some sort of record. What a contrast in have nots and haves!
Later that day, I had a discussion with my son about the home of one of the boys leading a high-adventure trip he is going on next summer. After attending several meetings at that home, my son had become impressed with its size and furnishings and declared that this family must be “loaded.” Apparently this boy also doesn’t need to do any fundraising for the expensive trip, as we’ve asked our son to do. “It must be nice,” he said. He also shared that a big topic of conversation among some of his peers lately (all of whom are 16-ish) is what kind of car they’re getting or will be getting; he finds this topic annoying, he says, because we’re not gifting him with a car. He went on to tell me how his goal as an adult is to be rich like, he believes, most of his friends’ parents are. I suggested that he should aim, instead, to be a good person, help others, and have a career that makes him happy and allows him to live a comfortable life.
We live in a world of vast differences in wealth, from people who have more money than they could spend in a lifetime despite purchasing every toy and luxury known to man, to people who lack enough money to procure the basics of life like food, water, shelter, and health care. I told my son that just as he looks at that one boy’s family and thinks they have it made, there are others who would look at my son’s life and think the same—and I don’t just mean starving children in Africa, but other teens right here in the Pittsburgh area.
I reminded him that no matter how much money you make, there will be those who have more than you and those who have less. Unless you end up as the richest person in the entire world, someone will always have more than you. If your success is based entirely on your wealth, and your happiness dependent on how your wealth compares to others’, you can easily find yourself constantly pursuing more. You will never feel you have enough, will never be content.
But it’s hard to talk to a teenage boy about the more intangible measures of the good life, particularly when TV ads promote luxury cars as a sign that you have “arrived,” we hear often about the multi-million dollars our sports stars are paid, and many people are talking to my son about where he will go to college so he can get a “good” job in his desired field. Not that there’s anything at all wrong about wanting a career that will bring in a good salary—I do wish that for both of my boys, so they can have a nice home, take a vacation now and then, and provide for the needs (and many of the wants) for their own children someday. At the same time, I surely hope that we have adequately conveyed through word and deed that there is more to life than your bank account balance, the size of your house, the number of times you have traveled overseas, and the number of toys you have in the garage or media room.