Wealth and the “R” word

People with money never describe themselves as rich. It just isn’t done. The word “rich” has far too many negative implications.

The Rich are spoken of in conversation and the media as a remote class of people who are somehow morally suspect because they have a lot of money. However hardworking they may have been acquiring it, they are defined in the eyes of the “have nots” by money alone. The Rich are made out to be separate, oblivious and unable to understand the world everybody else lives in. Who would want to be identifed with that?

Yet, those who are wealthy are mostly just like everyone else except for the money. All of us value our individuality. We understand ourselves as unique, with our own personal blend of values, attributes and concerns. To be seen as one of a category of rich people, as opposed to an individual self with hopes, challenges and a complex life, is degrading and dehumanizing. Being thought of as Rich is especially unattractive when you consider that conversation about those people is often tinged with envy and frequently accuses them of insensitivity and unfairness, especially as regards paying taxes.

When you talk to wealthy people in person, they may describe themselves as “comfortable” or “well off.” It’s more convention than modesty. Mostly they don’t talk about their wealth at all. They talk about their interests, their problems, their families just like everybody else. Very few of them see their identity as tied to their economic resources. Many feel grateful for their good fortune. Some are worried and confused. Some are unhappy. Just like everybody else.

America has always understood itself as a classless society, as distinct from the historic stratification of Old Europe. Money is such an odd thing that it is almost impossible to be entirely well balanced on the subject. Do you know anyone who isn’t a little screwy about money? Most of us consider ourselves middle class, though we may distinguish between upper and lower middle. That hasn’t changed, even with the growing economic disparity between upper and lower in recent years. Acknowledging that “I’m rich” would take you out of the middle class into some disconnected and sparsely populated social milieu. No wonder nobody wants to go there.

Rich is a term used only from the outside, often critically. The Rich are always, them, never us. As if wealthy people somehow had the power to solve the problems of everybody else, if they would but dip into their coffers on other people’s behalf. In the crazy quilt of the land of the American dream, people of all incomes aspire to one day becoming rich even as they are suspicious of those who’ve already gotten there.

The one thing that is certain is that those who refer to The Rich, aren’t.

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