The term greed has historically been used to describe and criticize those who seek excessive material wealth. The word summons images of misers, dusty ballrooms, faded glory, and chests of ill-gotten gold. It brings to mind Botoxed men with neon tans, pool-side with a trophy wife. But these pictures of faded or tacky opulence are caricatures of greed. Greed also includes the painful, smelly, embarrassing hoarding that happens across the economic strata. Even the most poor greedy person is trying to satisfy an itch that will not be satisfied, trying to use things to fulfill an emotional void.
Detail of a sketch for a mural by Paul Mandracchia, 1957-2014.
Greed was been termed one of the seven deadly sins. It was thought to trip us up permanently if we succumbed. We have been warned that it brings no happiness. But, oddly, the greedy wealthy have also been called our “betters.” There is a belief imported into the United States by the Calvinists of the 18th century that views that the economically privileged are morally superior and the poor as morally suspect. The wealthiest people are saved and the poorest are damned. Many people, even those who are not particularly religious, know the phrase attributed to Jesus: The poor will always be with us. Taken out of context this phrase has been used at times to justify or explain the widespread sense of resignation we have to poverty and poor people.
Even babies are described as greedy when they are eager to be fed. Maybe they are showing us that at times we feel hungry for possessions when what we want is support, connection, nurturing. If that is the case, if their behaviors challenge our own unresolved desire for closeness, we might be better to avoid describing them as greedy. Instead, we might say they are assertive in getting their human needs met.
Are many more of us greedy for the basics of life than acknowledge it? Is our envy or acquisition of things a substitute for a sense of closeness, power, or control?
I wonder if a thing is a thing is a thing (a nod here to Gertrude Stein). Or are things symbolic to us of our unrequited desire for love and respect?