Greed: A Door to the Dust, or to the Divine?

The dictionary defines greed, an attribute as ancient as humankind, as wanting more than your share. Few people would want the synonyms for greed – avarice and covetousness – applied to them.  

Despite the negativity, greed certainly has become a condition prevalent in our world today. 

CNN Business actually has a “Stock Market Fear and Greed Index,” which gauges whether the movement of stocks are based on fear or greed, determining whether they’re fairly priced. Evidently, these tendencies are so powerful it’s necessary to create a measuring tool – not particularly confidence building. 

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Our past and recent history is littered with the astonishingly, obscenely wealthy seeking to increase their riches, long past any conceivable human need, by legal or illegal means and the exploitation of others.  What drives this relentless pursuit of wealth?

It would seem that greed can never be satisfied, actually increasing and becoming more intense over time. Erich Fromm, the renowned social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and sociologist, said: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”  

The Baha’i teachings have quite a bit to say about greed and its outcomes. Abdu’l-Baha, as always, offers keen insight: “How many are they who, though rich … are yet the poorest of God’s creatures; for, even as is witnessed, each day their greed for gain increaseth and their avarice waxeth more intense.

So, material greed can never provide lasting satisfaction, and because it can’t, fuels a treadmill in the endless pursuit of wealth hoping to get there. Souls become mired in the pursuit of material things and empires, and yet turn into “the poorest of God’s creatures” in the process.   

However, could there be another, more positive side to the seemingly innate human instinct toward greed? In his book Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha again leads us to the answer

… greed, which is to demand ever more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is displayed under the right circumstances. Thus, should a person show greed in acquiring science and knowledge, or in the exercise of compassion, high-mindedness, and justice, this would be most praiseworthy.

Apparently, from a spiritual perspective, of greatest importance is what we’re greedy about. For example, if we pursue the highest, most noble human virtues, can we ever imbue enough of them to reduce the supply and deny them to others? One cannot hoard virtues, and when practiced they benefit others, becoming life-affirming and satisfying to all involved.

For example, one hero we could all aspire to emulate produced one of the greatest events in the history of medicine. In 1952, the peak year of the polio epidemic, 58,000 cases afflicted victims, mainly children. Just a few short years afterward, polio had disappeared. Dr. Jonas Salk, working with a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the support of the March of Dimes charity, developed a successful vaccine to fight this terrible scourge. Then Dr. Salk refused to patent the vaccine, offering it free to the world. It is estimated that he could have gained $7 billion if he had commercialized his vaccine.

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So, Dr. Salk was greedy for knowledge to pursue a polio cure, to which he devoted his life. He was greedy in his desire that humanity no longer suffer from this deadly, crippling disease. His labors benefited the entire planet, and still do today. To say that his greed was praiseworthy would be an understatement.  This passage from Abdu’l-Baha testifies to Dr. Salk’s altruism:

… the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men?

The Baha’i teachings say we’re created to be spiritual beings. Perhaps that explains why material greed is unquenchable – because possessions can never fill a spiritual void. It can be a chasm into which we fall that takes us further and further away from the source of our true happiness and satisfaction, which is to honor and serve humanity with the gift of our true nature. For ourselves, we must all seek the answer to this important question from Abdu’l-Baha:

Why, then, exhibit such greed in amassing the treasures of the earth, when your days are numbered and your chance is well-nigh lost? Will ye not, then, O heedless ones, shake off your slumber?

Our answer will determine our future, where greed will be a door to the dust or a door to the divine.   

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