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SOct 27, 2002

Overcoming Wealth Addiction

SANTA CRUZ, CA.   Two months ago I was in Half-Price Books buying tapes for the long drive from Dallas to New Mexico. I found a copy of "Wealth Addiction" by Philip Slater, a tape version of the 1980 book with the same title.  

I played it for my wife. She was fascinated. We agreed that this was something very important--- even if both the book and the tape were "out of print."

And that's why I've come to Santa Cruz.

It's where Philip Slater lives.

A sociologist, he wrote "The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point" in the sixties. The book may be the best selling title ever launched by Beacon Press. He also co-wrote "The Temporary Society" with management guru Warren Bennis in 1968. In it, they predicted the Soviet Union would fall and worldwide democracy was inevitable. Then, and now, Philip Slater has one of the most insightful societal minds in America.

I've come to visit him because of the growing pain and fear in reader letters. Enormous anxiety has been caused by lost wealth.

Convention and habit would have us believe this is a terrible event. But something is telling me this is not a disaster. It is an opportunity. Our challenge is to find it. We need, in the words of Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, to "turn lemons into lemonade."

The obstacle is wealth addiction.

We need to overcome what Philip Slater wrote about in 1980--- our addiction to "Moneythink." We need to rediscover that life is about choices and experiences we create, not things we buy. In the book Slater tells us that wealth addiction can take many forms--- money addiction, possession addiction, power addiction, fame addiction, spending addiction.

  "An addiction," he writes, "is a need that is not only (1) intense and (2) chronic, but also (3) feels as if it were essential to our sense of wholeness. Addictions have to do with our feeling about ourselves: if you think you would feel incomplete, less of a person, or unable to function well without something--- even for a little while--- then you are addicted to that something."

By that definition, most of us have a serious wealth habit.

Philip Slater is now 75. He lives on Social Security in a rented 350 square foot efficiency apartment. He does not own a car. By most money definitions he is poor.     But he is also healthy, slender, handsome, active, and in full possession of an engaged synoptic mind. He recently finished a new book, yet to be published, with insights as clear and unique as Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael."

Over a casual dinner he described his younger self as intent, ambitious, and controlling. I asked how wealth addiction became visible to him.

He explained that in the mid-nineteen-seventies he had gone from being an academic with visions of writing for a living   to being a jobless academic with no money who suddenly had to move in with friends.

"It was the experience of losing everything and finding I was having a wonderful time. It was a feeling of adventure. When I lost control over my life it opened me to experiences I otherwise would not have had. I would have protected myself against them.

"It found me, as they say. It wasn't all pleasant. It was sort of a roller coaster, but there was something so liberating. I hadn't lost anything precious. I'd lost money. I'd lost security. I'd lost the emotional security of having my girlfriend there--- though I hadn't lost her. Because of the situation I was just plunged into new experiences I wouldn't have had otherwise…

  "Another factor in writing the book was some insights into the process of addiction itself. I think it was a feeling of 'incomplete'--- of trying to fill the hole in yourself.   People who feel that way try to fill the void with any number of things--- alcohol, sex, drugs, money.

"The issue isn't the 'drug'--- it's the emptiness. That emptiness is what the advertising industry plays on--- that people feel 'not full' and try to fill the hole with all that junk."

Is there a remedy?

Yes. But it's not an easy one. He calls it "reconnection." In the book he observes that the key to overcoming any addiction is "the awareness that there is nothing missing in your psyche. You have every trait, every emotional capacity somewhere within you. It's your birthright as a human being."  

And money has nothing to do with it.  

For the web:  

"Aging Well" written by George Vaillant

Filed Under: Burns at Large