Sunday, June 20, 2010

Paradox of Affluence

“Paradox of Affluence: Obligations for Leadership”
Phi Theta Kappa, Alpha Tau Beta Chapter, Induction Ceremony
Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 10 am in Owens Auditorium
Given by Ray Linville, Associate Professor of English and Humanities

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this program that celebrates the achievements of new members of Phi Theta Kappa.

Hi, y’all. Maybe a word of explanation: When I say “y’all,” I’m speaking to the new Phi Theta Kappa inductees. Now, “Hi, all y’all” -- I’m now including everyone here today. But before I return to speak specifically to the new inductees, I want all y’all to know what a special group y’all are. As the Dean of Instruction said to you before you entered the auditorium, y’all represent less than one percent of the students at Sandhills. We congratulate y’all for having a 3.7 GPA and better.

I also want to personally congratulate y’all because I have had the pleasure of knowing and being with y’all in the classroom. I want all y’all to know how much better y’all really do make this college. Just a couple of Phi Theta Kappa students can significantly improve a class. The discussion is better; assignments are completed with a better effort and also on time. The peer feedback and encouragement is stronger and better. So, y’all, congratulations. Y’all’ve done something that many college graduates wish that they had when they were students –- and that is to be recognized for academic achievement.
Now I want all y’all to know that Phi Theta Kappa has a special study topic of the “paradox of affluence,” a short title with a lot of meaning. It’s designed to guide their thinking on how they can serve their campuses and communities. So I need to make some specific comments to y’all about the paradox of affluence.

Well, first, “affluence”— not too hard to understand. It’s what some of y’all want, and some of all y’all want more: usually more money, not more courses. Affluence is easy to understand: It’s an abundant supply, usually related to material possessions and specifically to wealth. Now the fifty-cent word that goes with it: “paradox,” which means that something may on the surface seem contradictory or opposite of common sense but really is true.

Here is the paradox of affluence in a nutshell:
         We spend more, but have less.
         We buy more, but enjoy less.
         We've learned how to make a living, but not a life.
         We've added years to life, not life to years.

Those are not my ideas –- they belong to all of us (although they are generally attributed to Dr. Bob Moorehead, a former pastor in Seattle). They are on the blogs and web pages to describe our lives and the challenges that we face.

Now let me give you an example of paradox of affluence: Think about the life of Bernie Madoff. As soon as I mention his name, you know who I am talking about. He’s the guy who pled guilty to eleven felonies. He admitted to defrauding people out of billions of dollars – that’s “b” as in billions, not the “m” in million – billions of dollars for more than a decade. One court official estimated the actual losses were around $18 billion to investors. About three months ago, he was sentenced to one hundred and fifty years in prison. This rich and powerful former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange and head of a top business on Wall Street is now behind bars. Regardless of how many years you think one hundred and fifty are, it’s at least one long time. Once estimated to be worth personally over $800 million, his life is really worth nothing. Now that’s a real paradox of affluence.
         He learned how to make a living, but not a life.
         He added years to life, not life to years.

Another paradox of affluence:
         We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.

How about a contrast: Last month on campus we celebrated Constitution Week on September 17 and commemorated the adoption a long time ago, 1787, of that historic document. The true obligation of the citizens with affluence was to shape our government and protect our freedoms. After creating the Constitution, they continued to improve it with amendments. Rather than being guided by personal gain and greed, their obligations resulted initially in the Bill of Rights that extended our freedoms. What leadership lessons can we learn from other amendments that corrected a long overdue definition of citizenship and eventually extended voting rights to all? Even with its initial imperfections, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in use by any nation today. It’s also the shortest in use, so it’s not length that determines effectiveness. It is the completion of obligations. We continue to amend our course, our direction, and our goals until we have met the challenges and fulfilled our obligations.

         The paradox of affluence: We have
         more medicine but less wellness,
         more knowledge but less judgment,
         more experts yet more problems,
         more degrees but less sense.

How do your choices, challenges, and consequences relate to the paradox of affluence? It’s how you spend your time, what you do on a Saturday morning, how you choose a career, how you live your life, how you determine what is important not only to you but also those who depend on you.

Let me end with a few more contemporary observations about our paradox of affluence:
These are the times of big important people and small character,
steep profits and shallow relationships.
We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time.
These are the days of two incomes but more divorce -- fancier houses, but broken homes.
         We plan more, but accomplish less.
         We’ve done larger things, but not better things.
         We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.

I realize that the best talks are not the longest talks but the ones that end without delay, so let me come to my conclusion: Enjoy your achievements as all y’all celebrate y’all’s academic success today. Tomorrow the rest of your journey begins. Take the right road -- and beware of the paradox of affluence.

Note: This posting is a slightly edited version of the presentation given at the induction ceremony.

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