Today’s episode addresses homelessness and how the addiction to wealth is just a symptom of a greater societal addiction. People who have the greatest power are in the best position to significantly influence the course of our country and address the course of isolation and compartmentalization that exists between the wealthy and those who have descended into poverty. Can we see the connection between homelessness and our addiction to wealth? We need to begin with our own individual psychology; to wrestle with where we are. We’re not advocating giving away a “free lunch.” We’re simply looking for opportunities for everyone to be their best self. Success also needs to be expressed in form of personal fulfillment. Can we move beyond semantics and create a society that is successful, beneficial, and caring?
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The Missing Conversation, Episode Five. On this podcast, we will propose critical new strategies to address world issues including homelessness, immigration, among several others, and make a connection to how our individual psychology contributes to—and can also help transform—the dangers that we face. We will break from traditional thinking, as we look at our challenges from a freer and more independent point of view. Your host, Robert Strock, has 45 years of experience as a psychotherapist, author and humanitarian, and has developed a unique approach to communication, contemplation and inquiry, born from working on his own challenges.
Robert Strock (00:44):
Thanks for tuning in and welcome to The Missing Conversation today. We’re going to be talking about homelessness, and how the addiction to wealth is just a symptom of a greater societal addiction. I want to be very careful in what I say, because I realize some words could be fighting words, and I don’t mean them that way. I don’t mean to pin blame on anyone. What I’m trying to do is have a real focus on the people that have had the great fortune to see how their relationship to wealth is losing an opportunity to be of great service, in the sense that it narrows their focus to leave out the homeless community as being a fervent need to address. Clearly, the people that have the greatest power are in the best position to actually influence the course of our country, and address the course of isolation and compartmentalization that exists between the wealthy and those who have descended into poverty.
Robert Strock (02:07):
In this episode, we’re going to explore problems with society’s frequent addiction to wealth, the acquiring of that wealth, and the retaining and the consuming of it. It really stands out as one of the most pervasive forms of approved societal addictions. I use the word “approved” because not only is it approved it is actually frequently idealized. It pertains to big sports figures, movie stars, business leaders and celebrities. It’s very important that we see that perspective slant, especially as we contrast it with how we can all have a quality of life that furthers our maximum potential. Before I begin, I’d like to introduce my closest friend, Dave, who’s really been a partner in every aspect of my life since I was a puppy. He is also a partner in the Global Bridge Foundation. So, I’m incredibly grateful to have Dave join me to really bring more lucidity to the conversation.
David Knapp (03:36):
Robert, thank you for the opportunity to be here to share in your passion—our passion—around this issue. In particular, the subject matter of this particular podcast, feels like home. I really want you to clarify the point about the relationship between addiction to wealth. I want to ask you to clarify if you mean people that “already are wealthy,” or if you also are including people who “aspire to be wealthy, but aren’t wealthy yet?”
Robert Strock (04:22):
Great question; definitely both. I think the American Dream really left out, and leaves out, the wholesome community in America. If it’s looked at closely, from our vantage point, it’s kind of an embarrassing dream. “Let’s see how I can really create a wonderful lifestyle for myself, for my family, for those that I love.” In that dream, I don’t really have to pay attention to those that are starving, those that are homeless, or those that are impoverished. I think, right from the very beginning of school or parenting it’s so important that we expand what we call the American Dream. There’s nothing wrong with being successful. There’s nothing wrong with having a lot of money, especially if we see that in addition to taking care of ourselves, it’s natural to have an urge to want to give some of our excess to people that don’t have the same opportunities.
Robert Strock (05:40):
Beginning in junior high school, senior high school or college, people are deciding what career they want to go into. So, it’s important to influence or to consider and address these issues early. Does it make sense to just think about “me” and “mine,” or does it need to be me, mine, and others that are suffering more than I am? In effect, what you’re saying is that there is a concern or fear that anything that I give—if I have that point of view—diminishes my wealth or my aspiration to have wealth, and therefore I’m not able to do it because I’m still focused in the direction of separated success. So, things like homelessness, and other issues of a more altruistic direction, don’t get addressed because they take me off my target.
Robert Strock (06:45):
I mean, that’s perfectly expressive of the American Dream. And I think that’s exactly right. The thought is that my target is wealth and you’re showing me the possibility of a little less wealth. What’s not happening is a more holistic perspective so that If I’m building wealth I’m not unwittingly creating an enemy, that’s alienated from me, in the form of a homeless person knocking on my window when I’m at a traffic light. I need to open myself up to see that I’m not serving myself in the best way possible. Yes, I might have more money in my bank account, and it feels better, but it feels better because I’ve been conditioned to believe the concept that my net worth is equal to my self-worth. If I have more money, it feels like it gives me more security—no matter how much I have and that illusion, I believe really needs to be targeted, there isn’t a point that many people have that are wealthy, where they really recognize that they have enough, and they get to be open to a place where they can be generous and it’s not from guilt.
Robert Strock (08:10):
And it’s not from scarcity. The whole point here isn’t to have people say, “Oh, man, I feel really guilty because I haven’t given enough to the homeless.” The whole point is to see if I can really open to my best self. Asking ourselves,” What is my best self telling me to do? Does it really tell me to have a tremendous focus to just gain more and more wealth? Or does it include the survival of other people? Does it include things that I’m not focusing on now, but will add at another time, such as global warming? Does it include issues of our time that threaten our survival? Am I really taking care of my kids and my loved ones with old fashioned values? If I only take care of them financially am I losing the humanity ship that we’re living on.”
David Knapp (09:08):
As you say that, it’s so poignant, pervasive, and real, regarding people that have money and those that aspire to have money. Yet, at the same time, the dominant value system is to “give to the poor,” in Judeo-Christian society. That’s supposedly the value. And I say, “supposedly,” because it is fundamentally this conflict that we’re talking about. There are many people who go to a church or whatever their religion of choice may be, and there’s a certain religious value system associated with that. They’re out there trying to accumulate wealth. How are we to reconcile the conflict between the two, and what does it take to really perceive everything around you? That includes both creating wealth and being altruistic with it.
Robert Strock (10:16):
That’s a very careful contemplation of balance. And, of course, everyone’s going to have a different idea of balance. The idea of giving to the less fortunate, giving to the poor, making a donation when it represents less than a tiny % of a person’s net worth. Being wealthy, from my vantage point, can also be a massive source of suffering. Each person’s situation is unique, but the word “token” comes to mind. Giving to the poor or giving away to the less fortunate, for a very large percentage of the wealthy community, is a token (symbolic) amount. So, the question becomes: Can the original theme of tithing— not just giving, but giving something like 10% of your wealth—contribute to changing the world? Can we move from the predictable warring parties of rich and poor, no matter the country, to predictable cooperating parties where 10% or some number like that would make all the difference? That would give an opportunity to people that are less fortunate a real possibility to survive and thrive.
David Knapp (11:56):
The fundamental point you just raised is about the 10%. I’ll use myself as an example. If I give 10% just straight off the top, I begin to feel insecure. And for me, it is completely irrational. This conversation is “the missing conversation” about wealth and addiction versus the American Dream. If you want to put it in simplistic terms, it is rarely found. People feel afraid. You haven’t mentioned this, but you have had a practice of psychotherapy with people of tremendous means. We have all seen examples of the pathological ways people use their means, such as buying their way into colleges, etc. So how does this missing conversation relate to the American Dream, the insecurity caused by tithing or giving something more than a token amount, and the addiction to wealth? How does it get addressed?
Robert Strock (13:17):
Well, the first thing I would say is, “Thank you for being willing to put yourself up as one of the people that’s really struggling with it.” And, as I’ve teased you many times, you have a real problem. (laughter) But more sincerely, you are one of the ideal examples of somebody, despite giving something that certainly approximates 10%, that you wrestle with this issue, too and so am I. I know I haven’t found the ultimate answers as it is a moving target for those that are not having to just deal with survival. I’ve changed my view of my relationship to money and my relationship to reaching outside myself three times in the last two years, in major ways. I know I haven’t arrived. How much am I going to leave to my son? How much am I going to leave to this friend? How much am I going to give to the world? This is something that we need to consciously suffer with, in a very positive kind of suffering, not with guilt, but as a real aspiration to be our best selves. This kind of constructive suffering is really the hope of the world.
David Knapp (14:38):
Well, I don’t know if your son’s listening. I hope he’s feeling some semblance of feeling okay about the evolution of your relationship to money. It’s a big deal. I know I’ve said this a couple of times, but it’s not just about people that already have wealth. Every little bit counts. Every person aspires for wealth because of the conditioning that you’ve described. So, we’re conditioned as you said, from junior high, maybe even earlier, to have that aspiration. And it limits us; it limits our generosity; it limits our capacity to see everything around us in a way that we can feel part of it.
Robert Strock (15:37):
Yeah. You mentioned something that’s really very important. At this stage of my career, pretty much every client that I meet with is successful, yet they realize they’re not fulfilled. The ones that are most devoted, dedicated to soul search, love to be teased that, “What you believe matters in life has been set up by outdated ideas.” It’s set up by people who don’t know what it means to be potentially fulfilled in the heart, and that includes caring for people that really need help. And it’s a playful teasing; it’s really not designed to hurt anyone, but it’s designed to really honor people—like what you said about yourself, or even what I’m saying about myself: that we don’t know all the answers. We just know there needs to be an arrow pointed in a direction that allows us to be more inclusive of others that are less fortunate than ourselves.
Robert Strock (16:54):
And of course, if we’re less fortunate than others, how do we survive? You know, not everyone has the luxury of asking that question. So, we want to certainly include people that are coming into the world and starting to form their values; parents who are starting to give those suggestions. I think back to my childhood of seeing the Marlboro Man. We know that he was cool smoking a cigarette. Mr. Cool is kind of another derivative of the American Dream: “I’m handsome, I’m young, I’m sexy, I’m wealthy.” And that’s what really matters: that you get there. Literally, you’re going to be happy as hell, right? In reality, you’re going to be in hell; you’re not going to be happy.
Robert Strock (17:45):
Yes, you’ll have some fun, but down deep—if you go a little bit deeper below the surface—there aren’t that many people who love you. You don’t want that many people that you’re close to because you’re self-centered. There’s nothing wrong with being self-caring; as a matter of fact, everything right is about self-caring. However, really being self-centered, in a severe way, is a problem—as well as anything in between. I’m not here to judge, I am here to try to encourage. I am here to be an arrow, moving in a direction of contemplation, suggesting that we ask these very important questions am I in balance when taking care of myself, and those I love, both in the world and the homeless population, in this specific episode?
David Knapp (18:34):
I want to ask you a question about something you just mentioned about your clients. You said they’re successful, but they’re not satisfied or happy. How can that be? Are you talking about a definition of “success?”
Robert Strock (18:54):
Yes. You and I know this very well, because we did a conference at UCLA for 50 high schools that was called, “Being the Difference that Makes a Difference.” A big part of that was redefining success, exactly on point with what we’re talking about today. I know neither one of us thought about this before, since the idea of success as being defined in material terms is so archaic. It’s so primitive—in our guts—that none of us are going to get over that feeling. We all feel as if we’re giving something away, we feel more insecure, thinking, “Oh, I might need the money for a crisis. Oh my God, here is a pandemic. This is one of my worst fears. What if three more crises happen? What if this one lasts forever? Will I really have enough money for my family? I’ve got to make sure to take care of my family.”
Robert Strock (19:51):
First. I’ve got to have enough for a rainy day, for a rainy year, for a rainy life. So, it requires guts to challenge the deep-seated programming that we all have, that we feel like we’re betraying our sacred oath to protect ourselves and those we love. It would become normal and natural to be a bit disturbed when generosity starts to expand at any stage. As a parent or an educator, we may doubt if this is really right, or is this a moral trip? That’s going to make people feel like I’ve got a ruler and I’m hitting them in the face. They can take care of themselves, and I certainly don’t want to do that, but I do want them to expand their horizons, to include other people that are less fortunate—if they’re in a situation of not being the less fortunate [original: if that’s the situation they’re in, they’re not in the situation of being the less fortunate].
David Knapp (20:57):
And then we connect homelessness to the addiction of accumulating wealth. It seems like the American Dream by necessity must have a screened view of the totality of what’s around us as it doesn’t include addressing others suffering being part of the problem. This is true here in Los Angeles, for sure in America, and in many parts of the world. So how do we connect homelessness with the American Dream and the addiction to wealth? Where do those intersect?
Robert Strock (21:36):
Well, it seems to me that the bad news really is that this is something that’s gone on through the history of time, when power and wealth accumulates at the same time. If we look back at Rome or the French Revolution or so many different historical moments, money was so often the source of aggressively acquiring land and getting more power. It is also the source of suffering and the source of war. It’s going to require a deeper introspective to ask, “Are these priorities even sane?” or “Are they actually not sane at the deepest level?” If we see what’s happening with the separation of class and how isolated it remains homicides, we could see them as the cause of genocide and the cause of war, whether it’s a societal war or countries at war. The homeless population happens to be the symbol of the have-nots that we’re dealing with today.
Robert Strock (22:55):
Yes, the American Dream viewed the homeless as being unmotivated, undeserving, and unentitled. It makes me think of a story that one of my close friends at the time, who came from a very poor neighborhood, said to me: “Do you feel entitled to have your bank account?” And I looked at her like she was crazy. This was 35 or 40 years ago. I asked, “What are you talking about? Do I want to just give you money out of my bank account and put your name on it as a co-signer? No, I don’t.” But it has been a contemplation for me every decade, deeper and deeper, as I realized what she was really saying to me, which is: “Don’t you really feel like you’ve been fortunate? You had the connections, you were raised upper middle class, you knew people, and your life was easier.” I was raised in a mobile home and we barely survived month to month. We had to steal a little bit of food to survive. Do I feel my bank account blurs the reality a little bit with others? We have been conditioned to believe there is damn good reasons why I am where I am: I earned it. I worked hard and I deserve every cent I have. And those people over there, if they were like me, they’d be in the same place as I am. This cognitive distortion needs to be deeply investigated by all of us.
David Knapp (24:25):
I spoke to the exact point of that distortion, cognitive dissonance, just this week. I read that the 50th wealthiest Americans have a net worth equal to the poorest 165 million Americans. It’s so important to this series of dialogues and the ways to connect this knowledge to solutions. How do we deal with it? How do we transform this addiction to wealth into action that can make a difference that can be part of the solution relative to the poorest of us, to the most disenfranchised, and what do we do? How do we help people participate right now?
Robert Strock (25:20):
I think the first key really has to start with one’s individual psychology, because I think to do anything beyond what you can see is futile. I think if we see exactly the kind of fact that you just presented, and the outrage of it, we’re able to hold that concept of the poorest 165 million in perspective. If we were really able to hold that for an hour, we’d either laugh, cry, or feel inadequate. Or we put our head in the sand. Because the travesty of it is so obvious if we keep it in our sight. If we hold it cognitively in our mind and stop rationalizing that we’re entitled because of the connections we had, or where we were born, rather than being born in the poorest parts of any of the third world countries.
Robert Strock (26:26):
Another one of the really key distortions that I think is crucial for everyone to understand, “I don’t want to just have a money giveaway,” which is the dominant way the wealthy see it. Those that are not investigating this rationalize that it is just another government program, a giveaway, it’s just another filling in the gap, it’s not a philanthropy program understand the absolute core principle of what I would call “sanity.” It is giving opportunities for everyone to have a chance to survive for themselves, for their kids. If there’s one thing to remember, wealth can be wealth to give opportunities to everyone. That doesn’t mean one person has to solve it. We all have to wrestle with where we are, but please don’t say that this is just giving away a “free lunch.” No, we’re talking about opportunities for everybody to be their best self.
David Knapp (27:45):
And in that regard, in that spirit, I hope people are listening and feeling like they’re participating; that this provokes ideas and a desire to at least explore and think about individual situations. But importantly, wherever you are, wherever you live, whatever the circumstances in your city, the policies that have become ingrained in our world, in our government, are manifestations of this very pattern, this addiction and gross imbalance.
Robert Strock (28:24):
And it’s so important that you, whoever you are, don’t let the guilt button hit a kick-out switch. The most common reaction would be to feel that, “This is an attempt to make me feel guilty, so I’m going to go back to my life and not really take a look.” The whole attempt is to touch a part of your heart that can support you to ask, “Is this really going to make, let’s say, my kid’s life the happiest?” Let’s start with parents. Parents pressure their kids to get into the best university. They pull strings and pay a lot of money or get extra privileges to get them into expensive private school. Now, again, that might be fine if it’s part of a balanced life. I don’t have anything against private schools or universities. I do have something that admittedly is against being one element out of a hundred that are saying how do I get ahead just for myself and my family?
Robert Strock (29:30):
How do I get “mine” ahead? It’s viewed as being a source of wisdom, fulfillment, common sense, and more accurately it’s almost fulfilling the potential to be successful. Great. But the other half has to do with our hearts. The other half has to do with our relationships to people around us. Integrating these two requires thinking a bit out of the predictable box, the predictable guidelines that we were all given—or maybe not all—but most of us were given regarding what really is success. Success needs to be is expressed with another word, “fulfillment,” too. What we’re talking about is getting beyond the semantics and having something that is successful, beneficial and caring.
Robert Strock (30:49):
And when those are combined there’s a much greater possibility for individual fulfillment and interconnectedness. One of the things this reminds me of is one of the great documents in the history of our country, which is the Declaration of Independence, which stresses equality of opportunity. I couldn’t say it any better than that, even though there’s been a lot of reflection on this recently. When the Declaration was written, we had slaves and had taken over the American Indians, which was an injustice, a complete compartmentalization in a pretty extreme way. I think if we can really look at one of our best founding documents—perhaps the best—and see that this is what we need to learn from. It doesn’t matter whether we’re Republican or Democrat. We can see that at one level we’ve all been hypocrites. We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of. None of us are proud of having slaves or treating the American Indians the way we did when we started this nation. But it’s so important that we see part of where we are psychologically is still in that split. It’s still compartmentalizing between our lives and those lives that don’t have the same kind of opportunities that we do. And again, I want to honor everyone that doesn’t have opportunities, every time I say that.
David Knapp (32:46):
And I might add, because what you said hits me at my core, there are many of us today in this country that would say righteously nothing has changed. The mistreatment, the view, the bigotry, the advantages and disadvantages, the kinds of opportunities, the kinds of disconnects between wealth and poverty exist in virtually the same way in today’s world. So, then the question becomes translating, what has become a budding awareness, through this podcast series, into policies, to moving ahead, and into what we can do or how can we activate this?
Robert Strock (33:46):
I think part of the missing conversation is nuanced at one level by the fact that we’ve made some progress. Women can vote, blacks can vote. Injustices are probably less common than they were, as horrible and unconscionable and heartbreaking as they are. And, at the same time, we can’t in any way afford to forget the Declaration of Independence. We need to remember that this is an imperative. This is much more sane than the American Dream. And so, for all of us to take that in and ask, “How do I have my Declaration of Independence?” That’s in a way a paradoxical term, because it’s like, “The Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Compassion,” which is what makes it so profound. Its meaning is to both take care of yourself and take care of others, which is really a very sane message.
David Knapp (34:59):
I think what you’re saying is that is the original American Dream, right?
Robert Strock (35:06):
Exactly. Exactly. And unfortunately, it didn’t have legs in a serious way. It’s not presented in school to see how our lives conflict with the America Dream, nor are there too many parents who are going to promote that illusion as well. Again, this is not anti-success, this is pro-success and pro-consideration of opportunities for everyone that’s alive, and especially focusing on the homeless. So I want to invite you to communicate in any fathomable way that you can to further benefit the homeless community, no matter where you live, no matter what your thoughts have been prior to now, your actions or your inactions, because this is going to require a vast team. I welcome your input and really hope that you’ll take this as a co-participant. Thank you very much.
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