Ten years on…..
Helen Macdonald is the author of the remarkable book ‘H is for Hawk’, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize and the COSTA Book of the Year award in 2014. The book is several things. It is a beautifully-written nature book, recording how she trained her own Goshawk, with sparkling descriptions of the Cambridgeshire countryside. It is also a starkly honest account of her grief following the death of her father, and, along the way, a homage to the writer T.H. White (of ‘The Sword in the Stone’ fame) who shared her love of falconry.
One day, whilst enjoying a coffee in the centre of Cambridge, Macdonald describes how she became aware of the developing banking crisis back in 2017, as it affected Northern Rock. She makes some perceptive comments about how this challenged our sense of security:
‘….I keep looking up because outside the window is a line of people. It’s not a line like a ticket queue or an airport line, or any line I’ve seen before. A woman with perfectly straight bobbed grey hair and close-pursed lips grips a binder of loose papers. The man next to her holds one too. They’re staring into the middle distance and no-one is saying a word. I don’t see the panic beneath the silence for a while, but then the panic is all I can see. When she passes my table I ask Dagmara, the barista, if she knows what is going on. She shrugs her shoulders. ‘I’ve just asked one of them. It’s a Bank. The Northern Rock. They are taking their money out because it is going bankrupt.’ I frown at the unmoving line……. I’ve never seen a Bank run before. It’s something from the Wild West or a grey, blowsy print of Weimar Berlin…… look at the line of people and all their fierce possessiveness and all their hidden terror at the thought that their bulwarks against death might be lost. Money. Security. Knots and lines. The ends of things. (p.159)
Macdonald displays penetrating insight in her understanding of the way we can so easily look to money for security, and for her stark portrayal of the consequent terror that gripped so many at the prospect of losing their money. It would be wrong to belittle the very real pressures that people legitimately feel when money is tight, or savings are threatened. The Bible, as we have found in our studies in Proverbs on Sunday mornings, is very positive about prosperity. Wealth can be a good thing, and poverty a very bad thing. That said, the Bible is deeply critical of making wealth our ultimate good and warns against turning it into an idol, from which we derive our sense of worth and meaning and security.
It is ten years since the worst of the banking crisis engulfed the major economies of the world. It was a crisis which exposed many of the idols of our contemporary society. There was a string of suicides among the wealthy following the global crash.* The acting chief Financial officer of Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, hanged himself in his basement. The chief executive of the real estate auction firm, Sheldon Good, shot himself behind the wheel of his Jaguar. The French money manager, with responsibility for the investments of many of Europe’s royal and leading families, slit his wrists in his Madison Avenue office. A Danish senior Executive with HSBC hanged himself in the wardrobe of his £500-a-night suite in Knightsbridge. And so on. An online search will provide a seemingly endless list of heart-breaking examples of wealthy and successful people ending their lives following the crisis of ten years ago.
Each of these deaths was a profound tragedy. They arose from despair: a despair that engulfed those who found their lives no longer had meaning. They had lost what they had been living for. For many of them, their devotion to money and power was laid bare when they lost it, and they could not face life without them. Wealth and power had become for them the ultimate thing in life, and without them life was not worth living. These were not people who necessarily had histories of depression or suicidal tendencies. These were ordinary, but materially successful, people who had taken good things but made them ultimate things.
Bearing in mind that proverbs are not absolute promises, but are general principles to be applied carefully (In the same way that we recognise the truth in both ‘many hands make light work’ and ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ - apparently contradictory, but in fact both are true when applied appropriately) we find that wealth is generally a good thing:
In a passage about the blessings of wisdom we read: I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me. 18 Riches and honour are with me, enduring wealth and righteousness. 19 My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver. Proverbs 8:17-19
Wisdom (which is to be prized above wealth) teaches us self-control and self-knowledge, an ability to plan and learn and take advice, all of which creates the conditions to do well (all other things being equal). Prosperity releases us from the grinding suffering of abject poverty. Prosperity is a good thing - provided it is not elevated to our greatest good so as to become an idol. For that reason, Proverbs also lists the many dangers of wealth. Primarily, for example, the danger of putting our trust in it:
A rich man's wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin. Proverbs 10:15
We find ourselves back to where Helen Macdonald watched the anxious faces of those who queued outside Northern Rock, believing their precious savings to be their strong city of security:
…… look at the line of people and all their fierce possessiveness and all their hidden terror at the thought that their bulwarks against death might be lost. Money. Security. Knots and lines. The ends of things.
It is a striking fact that half the times wealth is referred to in the Book of Proverbs it is portrayed as something to be prized, but the other half of the times we are warned against placing our trust in it.
Ten years on, have we learned?
* These suicides are listed by Timothy Keller in the opening chapter of his excellent book ‘Counterfeit gods’. He explains that we identify our idols (be they material things, success, romance, people) by asking the question ‘what is it, that if I lost it, would mean life was no longer worth living?’