That would be a worrying diagnosis from a doctor? Wouldn’t it? Dragon-sickness. But a lot of us have it. The phrase from The Hobbit, originally describes King Thror, whose love of gold brings a sickness of the mind. ‘And where sickness thrives, bad things will follow’. Smaug, a dragon descends and destroys their Kingdom of Erebor. They fall into the depths of grief and start a symbolic and literal journey to return home and face the dragon. Finally, Thror’s grandson, Thorin, must face his family illness and his destiny. A destiny we all share.
In a society, where The richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth.(and)The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 8.7%.(1) Many, if not all, social ills come from inequality .The love of money, accumulating wealth, fame and possessions is such a part of modern society, that one could call it a defining characteristic. You have more, you want more. You can’t get more, you envy those who have more. Envy is a shadow of our time. Can we ask ourselves, where does the accumulation stop and does it bring happiness anyway?
The link between self worth and what we own.
I don’t think the answer is simply accumulation is bad and we should all walk in sackcloth and ashes. Grey was never my colour, anyway. But the fundamental problem with accumulation is it tends to be motivated by self centred reasons. The tendency of our shadow ( our unowned part) is to wish to accumulate more and more, in the belief that more makes us better or bigger, more powerful people. If I have a larger house, a better car, a better job or better clothes, then, in some way it will increase my self worth or value as person. The link between self worth and what and who we own is a deep modern and ancient problem. To quote tibetan buddhist masters.’If you have a horse and cart, you have a horse and cart load of worry’. If we have a 1.7 million mortgage, how does this possession weigh on our minds?
The Love of Gold
It is not so much the gold, but, the love of gold or the love of money which is the problem. We unquestioningly continue to accrue things with self centred motivation. We give covert or overt messages to our children that success especially financially, are key to being a valuable person. Therefore, you need to get 4 A stars at A level, to go to a good university, to get in a good profession and earn more money than you would, if you didn’t follow the orthodox path. The problem with this is there are those who cannot compete in this limited recipe for success. They fall through the gaps and become a disenfranchised tranche of society looking up at the God of The Day who seems to have everything. Inequality is the root of many social ills including premature death.
‘This evidence review shows marked social inequalities for.. the leading causes of early death across the life course. .. causes of early death include differences in: access to resources (financial, social and natural); adversity; unemployment rates; housing quality; quality of work, the physical environment, social isolation, …’ (2). ‘Social Inequalities in the Leading Causes of Early Death A Life Course Approach’. UCL Institute for Health Equity
What is the answer? Renounce society? Give to charity? Intern yourself in a monastery? I think some of the answers come from questioning what we have been taught are important values. In addition to examining our motivations in attaining those values. Could we not be taught more clearly the dangers of Dragon Sickness from early on? Or would that be too heretical to western social norms? Would it be wise to teach students about what are good values or question the orthodox values of materialism? To some it might seem like heresy or not necessary or perhaps a liberal namby pambyism. But, all quality education seeks to draw out (educere: latin for draw forth out) a questioning mind who can question what she/he perceives or is told. Swallowing whole theories, dogma or orthodoxies usually produces drones not happy people.
Interestingly, enough there are schools of thought in main stream eduction, albeit private, who are advocating an understanding of happiness and emotional intelligence as a value rather than industrialised academic hothousing (3). What we might have once challenged through an understanding based on religious teaching is now no longer available or chosen by many. How do people, therefore, find their own value system if there is no time-tested moral code to go by?
I am not advocating religion, merely pointing out that religion did and does provide a moral code which may be an alternative touchstone to the epidemic of materialism and vanity that effects the young and old alike. Equally, we all know the many crimes committed in the name of religion, but, in every religion or spiritual practice there are seeds of wisdom and truth. Such as compassion, kindness, non-attachment.
Intention is every thing
The key issue really is if you remove or let go of a moral framework which imparts a sense of respect for life , the people around you and what are good behaviours to adopt,what do you replace it with? Any moral framework which you adopt, not because you are told to, but, because after reflecting you realise that some actions always bear bad fruit is surely a productive thing. You might like someone’s car to the point of intolerable envy, but, you might think twice before bashing the owner over the head with your work bag and stealing it. Because you know it will cause bad things to follow you. Harming another with destructive intent will bring bad fruit. Going to war will always engender more suffering for all concerned. Which ever stance you take, looking at the wars which have raged since the dawn of time, when analysed by a reflective mind will usually tell us that the results are always the same. i.e. People die, families suffer , societies suffer, countries suffer for many decades after the event and then repeat a similar War generations later. Was there ever a War, where no one suffered and it all ended amicably with afternoon tea? Probably not.
I have treated young A level students so stressed out that they are becoming mentally unwell . Because they are not only having to get 4 ‘A’ stars at A level. They have to be a world class musician, a sports star and the most popular and beautiful person in their year with zillions of social media followers, all before they are 18. Such terrible social pressure is making young adults unwell. I said to one such student..’Just remember even if you fail all your exams you are still worth the same as a person, than if you pass them all and become Nikki Minaj’s best friend. I think in that moment, what was a heart-felt comment seemed to cut through pre exam mania.
‘A defining characteristic of England’s low mobility record is an achievement gap between less advantaged children and their more advantaged counterparts that widens between the ages of eleven (the end of primary school) and sixteen (end of compulsory secondary school). There is no evidence of this widening in other countries.’(4)
Good Will a hidden shadow.
Even in a world of such terrible violence, inequality and materialism, we can say that the status quo, the fact that our society works well on the whole is due to something. Is it an accident? Habit? Or maybe a deep tide of good will that runs beneath our sullen monday morning faces. Something like the spirit of good will that surged up to make the London 2012 volunteering spirit. I rather suspect it is due in part to all the unmentioned acts of kindness, generosity and patience that happen everyday, but are not reported in the media because they are not dramatic or sensational.
Returning to the words of Tolkien, to quote Gandalf, in ‘Lord of the Rings’.
‘Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but, that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love’.
4 What prospects for mobility in the UK? A cross-national study of educational inequalities and their implications for future education and earnings mobility. Sutton Trust In partnership with the Russell Sage Foundation and the Pew Economic Mobility Project November 2011