The human child is completely dependent on caregivers for survival. We don’t have sharp fangs, penetrating claws, or the protective aide of sensitive sight and sound to discern danger. We would be extinct if it wasn’t for our amazing ability to pool resources, work together, and build complex communities. These skills require a big brain that learns. In many ways, we are not that different from other organisms. We are driven by instinct, motivated by emotions. Our emotions just motivate us to think and connect. However, internal drives push for other things. Most prominent of these is the external reward of power and money.
Our cognitive brain measures emotions, evaluates faces, and determines safety. Properly guided, a child develops the intricacies of interaction, and grows into a healthy adult with healthy relationships. But some children receive fragmented lessons in connections, socialized in broken homes with toxic environments. These children are still driven to connect; their large human brains, however, were not given proper information to effectively understand societal demands. Often, they default to more rudimentary symbols of security and connection. They seek power and money.
Becoming Part of Society
The normal emotions of sadness, guilt, fear, and anger are felt and integrated into a response. The healthy child allows the feelings to guide a proper action that connects the child to the surrounding group, benefitting the individual and the community. The self-confidence of the child grows with age appropriate contributions to society. As an adult member of a complex world, we learn trades necessary to participate in life, knowing that our involvement makes us a productive member, ensuring our acceptance in a group.
In the technical age, the growing complexity often blurs the appropriateness of our contributions, we subsequently weigh our importance by the tangible compensation received for our work and determine worth by the numbers on our paycheck.
“Success isn’t measured by money or power or social rank. Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace.”~Mike Ditka
Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss wrote “acquisitive people derive their sense of identity and their imagined place in society from the things they own, yet the symbols that confer that self-worth and status are at the whim of external forces-of fashion. Materialism thus robs us of autonomy” (2005, p. 15).
Fear of Insufficiency
Our success as adults isn’t always discernible to the self. We absorb childhood labels of insufficiency and continue to carry these beliefs as adults; although we may make notable contributions to society, a nagging insecurity insists we don’t. These disturbing feelings create disrupting doubts in two fundamental areas of adult life—work and love.
We fear insufficient worth to a partner and community, driving an insatiable hunger to achieve more power and more money to prove we are valuable. We gather symbols of worth. Instead of mastering connection, or improving contributions to the whole, the ailing soul frantically seeks proof—sex and money.
“We absorb childhood labels of insufficiency and continue to carry these beliefs as adults; although we may make notable contributions to society, a nagging insecurity insists we don’t.” ~T. Franklin Murphy
We accumulate items that sparkle, showing to the world we are important; a car, a watch, a title, the latest iPhone, or pair of Air Jordan’s. We indiscriminately pursue sexual liaisons rather than work through the complicated maze of intimacy. The symbols of power and money superficially satisfy our sense of worth, broadcasting to their community that we are valuable contributors—and accepted.
The insecure settle for a maladjusted adaptation to internal drives to belong, seeking proof rather than being proof; to have rather than be. Some young adults have not successfully developed the necessary skills to prevail over the tasks of adulthood—to work and to love. Other adults succeed at the tasks but fail to accurately assess their competence. Either way, the misguided person focuses on extrinsic goals to prove to themselves and others their importance. High grades, money, possessions and status become the motivating goals.
These shallow achievements provide momentary pleasures but miss the mark by failing to satisfy the underlying evolutionary drive to be a valued member of society and to be securely loved. Successful fulfillment of the drive is achieved through intrinsic goals of developing competence in important activities, developing deeper relationships, finding meaning, and passing on discovered wisdom to others.
To Have or To Be
Erich Fromm refers to the drive for power and money as the ‘having mode.’ He explains, “the nature of the having mode existence follows from the nature of private property. The Buddha has described this mode of behavior as craving, the Jewish and Christian religions as coveting; it transforms everybody and everything into something dead and subject to another’s power.” Fromm pointedly continues, “the subject is not myself but I am what I have. My property constitutes myself and my identity” (2013).
In an odd twist, not only do we own property but property owns us. We need power and money to provide our identity. And once we traveled down that path, losing power or money also damages our sense of self.
A better path is one of being. Fromm explains that “being refers to the real, in contrast to the falsified, illusionary picture. In this sense, any attempt to increase the sector of being means increased insight into the reality of one’s self, of others, of the world around us” (2013). Susan David seems to be referring to a state of being when she suggests, “free yourself from pursuing perfection so you can enjoy the process of loving and living” (2016, Kindle location Location 3,056).
The Dalai Lama explains the being mode this way, “true happiness relates more to the mind and heart. Happiness that depends mainly on physical pleasure is unstable; one day it is there the next day it may not” (Cutler, 2009, p.33). Power and money are unstable at the whim of economy or the judgement of a court, they can be wiped away.
We Are all Susceptible to the Lure of Power and Money
Social media provides plenty of examples of greed and loss of freedom. Consider the social media influencer. There are millions out there. However, some rise to the top. It isn’t necessarily because they have more to offer. Collecting large pools of followers are power (and money). However, social media influencers lose control of their content. Instead of information stemming from knowledge and research it seems to morph to appease a growing crowd. To keep a growing audience and an increasing flow of money, the influencer produces content that supports these goals.
Several years ago, I shared an article on a political leader, and made a few comments. My opinion aroused more attention, reaction, and followers than any of my research and writing. A post that took me two minutes to write outperformed articles that take me several hours, sometimes days, to write. It would have been easy to abandon what I love, provide what people want, and expand my online presence. I could deal with the cognitive dissonance of abandoning what I love and value later.
The external rewards of power and money tempt the most courageous and principled people.
Something Better than Power and Money
The intrinsic goals establish a clear identity of importance, with confidence to master internal drives in a productive manner. We become rather than accumulate. Certainly, the act of becoming also achieves many of the successes of wealth and status. The person who becomes of value to the community, expresses their worth through action.
This is the purpose of our big brain; to learn the rules of society, becomes a valuable member, fellowshipped into a healthy community, leading others to the enjoyments of being. This is not denial of the self but the mature adaptations of internal drives to live a healthy and happy life in a complex and unpredictable world.
Cutler, H.; Dalai Lama (2009). The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living. Riverhead Books.
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition edition.
Fromm, Erich (2013/1976). To Have or To Be. Open Road Media; Revised edition.
Hamilton, Clive; Denniss, Richard (2005). Affluenza: When too much is never enough. Allen & Unwin.