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Wealth: let us heed the words of the wise

Oct 05, 2003 Success, Sunday Nation

If you still believe that the pursuit of material wealth should be our guiding light, both as individuals and as a nation, then you are putting yourself up against some of history’s most enlightened thinkers. This week I take you on a little tour of what the good and the great of this world had to say on the subject of wealth.

Jesus Christ was known not to mince his words when it came to the rich. He said, famously: “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Elsewhere, he recommended: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.”

The Prophet Muhammad also told his people that the poor would enter the kingdom of Heaven before the rich did. He exhorted Muslims to be generous with their wealth and give a regular proportion of their income away to the poor. Thus almsgiving (zakat) became one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims were urged not to hoard their money, nor develop a compulsive rivalry to acquire more than anyone else.

Even after becoming the most powerful man in Arabia, Muhammad himself always lived a simple and frugal life. He hated luxury, and never had more than one set of clothes at a time. He spurned the urging of some his followers to wear rich ceremonial dress; when he received gifts, he gave them away to the poor.

In the sixth century before Christ, there was born a prince in a kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas. His name was Siddhartha, and in his youthful years he was surrounded by every conceivable luxury. He is said to have had three palaces built for him, one for each season of the year in that tropical region.

But Prince Siddhartha could not find peace in worldly amusements. At the age of twenty-nine, we are told that he renounced his kingdom, put on the robes of a wandering ascetic, and walked out, never to return. He went on to become Lord Buddha, founder of a faith that now has several hundred million followers all over the world.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was of similar ilk. Trained to be a businessman by his father, he would often annoy him by using money given to him to buy goods to feed the hungry instead. He, too, renounced worldly ways and began to travel around northern India and beyond, becoming famous in the process. During his travels, the story is told that he preferred once to eat at the house of a poor labourer rather than attend a feast held by a rich banker. When confronted by the banker, Nanak is said to have demonstrated to him that his bread contained only blood, while the bread of the poor man contained milk. The poor man had earned his food by honest hard work; the rich man had exercised harshness, cruelty and greed in acquiring his wealth.

We must ask ourselves: why is that the founders of all the world’s religions have the same message about wealth? Why is it that the enlightened not only spurn all the wealth given to them, but also warn us against running in the rat race of chasing after riches all our lives? It is because they could see something that we cannot: that the pursuit of material possessions and the pursuit of self-realisation and fulfilment are not compatible activities. Jesus put it thus: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

But perhaps, reader, being of the modern world, you are wary of religion and religious leaders? Would you wish to look elsewhere for your wisdom? Philosophers, perhaps? Here is Plato, the famous Greek thinker: “To be at once exceedingly wealthy and good is impossible.” Or maybe we can go to a different time and place, and visit Kahlil Gibran, the Middle East’s best-known visionary and poet, who wrote: “Money! The source of insincere love; the spring of false light and fortune; the well of poisoned water, the desperation of old age!”

Or it may be that you are a man or woman of science, reader? Would you care to listen to one whose wisdom is grounded in the laboratory, not in the fanciful realm of words and notions? How about Albert Einstein, arguably the most famous physicist of all time, and Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Twentieth Century’? Here’s what he thought: “Money only appeals to selfishness and always tempts its owners irresistibly to abuse it…it is at last beginning to be realised that great wealth is not necessary for a happy and satisfactory life.”

The problem with money is that it takes away perspective and flattens us to a single dimension. Once we begin to love money for its own sake, we close our spirit to higher things. Such a love is a low and primitive vice. Our national obsession with money, profit and affluence, far from fuelling our economic development, is the reason we are nowhere today. It is a sign of spiritual disease.

When we pile our lives high with possessions, and fill our heads with formalities and fashion, ostentation and empty show, we are putting a crown of thorns onto our heads. We make our lives cumbersome and unmanageable. We place anxiety and worry into our existence. The true treasures given to us are forever lost, hidden by the silken and seductive veil of wealth.

At a time when our leaders are all declaring their wealth, we need more than ever to be attuned to the timeless thinking of the ages. I fear our emphasis on material gain has gone so far in Kenya that we will view this exercise in a peculiarly warped way: rather than see it as a necessary stock-take to facilitate future auditing, we will see it as an exhibition, a parading of riches and, by implication, of success. Let us keep our eyes wide open and see that those who devote themselves to mindless accumulation are the problem, not the solution. Our leaders would do well to heed the words of an unknown wit: “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.”

What of us, the common Kenyans? I do not for a moment advocate that we all need to be poor in order to be fulfilled, that we must purge our lives of all our belongings and give the evil banknotes away in a frenzy of generosity. Not at all. There is a balance to life and a way of leading it that brings both material gain and peace of mind. More on that next week, in the final part in this series of articles on wealth.

Same time, same place.

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