Sunday, 19 February 2012

How close is close?

Last Thursday morning, a text message arrived on my phone from my married son. Not a particularly newsworthy event, but there are text messages and then there are text messages. This was one of the latter.

Basically it was telling me that his wife wasn’t going out with her friend and workmate that night as originally planned. (Not that interesting.) It also said that, for the foreseeable future, she had been asked to take over the shifts her friend was supposed to be working. (Pretty mundane.) They are both supervisors at an Iceland shop in a Nottingham suburb. (Okay, you’re beginning to yawn.) The friend’s name is Cassey. (Ring any bells yet?) Cassey, 22, had just won £45 million on the Euro lottery, which apparently makes her as rich as Hugh Grant, and had cancelled her evening out with my daughter-in-law because the press were all over her story. She wasn’t doing her shifts at Iceland anymore because she had resigned her job. Not surprising really.

I have never been that close before to such a huge, unexpected sum of money. It had a really strange effect. I have always felt very fortunate in life and have a more than comfortable income on which we live well. But then a text arrives and all of a sudden you feel poor, indeed even unlucky, because it’s not your ticket; which is ridiculous because I have never bought a lottery ticket, so not winning hardly makes me unlucky.

In 2005, Professor Richard Layard, a distinguished economist, published a book with the intriguing title, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of his ’lessons’ was that scientific research shows that people’s level of happiness does not rise with increased wealth over and above the level of basic need. What does make people happy is having more money than other people. What causes dissatisfaction is finding out that someone else, especially someone close, is doing better than you. That explains why last Thursday morning I suddenly felt poor. This ridiculous reaction has a scientific basis. The Bible calls it covetousness and its history is as ancient as humankind. It’s the reason Cain killed Abel and why Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Children learn it very young: “It’s not fair”; “I’m hard done by”.

Last Sunday the Greek Parliament passed yet another austerity package. Millions of people are seeing their financial future collapse, and they are rioting about it. Why? Layard’s new science tells us it’s because their European friends are doing much better.

The press reports portrayed Cassey and her fiancé Matt as decent young people determined to help others from their good fortune. There is talk of providing dad a pension so he can retire from his decorating business and of helping close friends to buy their houses.

I find it a sinister thought that over the weekend I was preoccupied with the question of how "close" a friend of Cassey my daughter-in-law really might be, but by Monday morning the fate of the Greek people had slipped my mind.

 It’s not surprising that one of God’s early instructions to His people was that they should not covet. Professor Layard agrees that it’s quite a problem for us humans.

Miles Walker is a pseudonym - Evangelical Alliance

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