Saturday, January 22, 2011

If I ever get out of here

While at work the other day, I overheard two people discussing the lottery. Earlier this month, the multi-state Mega Millions lottery, having reached a jackpot of $380 million, was split between two lucky winners. Even split in two, that is, of course, more money than the average person would even know how to spend over their lifetime. It’s something to dream about. I’m not sure, though, whether the dream is made any more or less tangible by the fact that, a few years ago, someone at work actually did win the lottery. It was a much smaller jackpot—about $4 million, I think—but still several times more money than most of us will ever see at once.

I must admit, the moment I heard the news, my heart began to race as I considered what his winning could possibly mean for me. It settled down quickly enough, however, as I recognized that it didn’t mean anything for me. I could only try to feel glad for my coworker, actually a supervisor, who had often loudly complained about being too old to stay until 5 PM, about his arthritis in both hands, and about wishing he could work from home, “minus the work part.” I don’t really know what he’s doing now, but he certainly didn’t stick around long after winning. From conversations I overhear, I gather that he’s basically using the money to enjoy retirement, still occasionally having lunch with former coworkers, inviting them to shoot pool, letting them bask in his newfound fortune and comfort.

Yes, I think being so close to that money, without actually being able to touch it myself, does encourage me to dream a little more, despite the fact that I didn’t play the lottery then, and still don’t play it now. Maybe it’s the same for some of my coworkers, or maybe they don’t need extra encouragement to thus fantasize.

The guy who brought up the jackpot the other day is actually also a supervisor, of a higher rank than the guy who won the $4 million. I used to sit next to this guy, and I would overhear his conversations about buying vintage cars and parts to work on, or about his thirty acres of land at home for the dogs to roam. I couldn’t really picture it, but thirty acres sounded pretty big, and I got the impression that he was rather well-to-do. On the other hand, he also works much harder and much more than I do. Also, our company is officially a non-profit, so it’s hard to comprehend how anyone could get rich doing what we do. Maybe his money, if indeed he has any, comes from his wife. Even if they do have money, however, it’s not so much as to spare him from dreaming of a more comfortable life. Reflecting on that $380 million jackpot, he mused, “With that kind of money, I could probably disappear.”

It got me thinking too. It was an appealing idea. Years ago, working the late shift at my previous job, my coworkers got into a discussion over our ideas of “the perfect day.” It took me a good long while to come up with an answer—I’m a guy without any goals or prospects, after all—but in my very uncertainty lay my answer. For a man who could not think of anything to desire, perhaps the dream was really a life apart from everything. I would find a place far from other people, and I would just stare out the window all day with a glass of juice in my hand, caring nothing about the world, and the world caring nothing about me.

I don’t know if my supervisor was thinking along the same lines when he spoke of “disappearing,” but that’s what I pictured as my own dream. I thought to myself, if I ever had enough money, I would find a nice house out in the middle of nowhere, to spend the rest of my days doing nothing, seeing no one. It’s merely a dream, not a plan, and probably, if I ever did come into such a large sum of money, my conscience would forbid my spending it so wastefully.

I read a news story recently about a man who wrote a $10,000 check to the state of California. Dennis R. Ferguson was retired and living in South Carolina, but, seeing California in its current budget crisis, he felt compelled to give a little as “repayment” to the state that, almost fifty years ago, helped him through a tough couple of weeks with unemployment checks.

I thought it an extraordinary story, though it didn’t make “front page” news and was quickly bumped by other articles. Of course, practically speaking, that $10,000 is nothing against the state’s budget issues. Even $380 million would hardly put a dent in our deficit. But it made me think. For it will never be the money that solves our world’s problems. Money has been the source of our problems, not the solution. Truly, Ferguson’s newsworthy gesture is of greater benefit than the actual dollar amount of his contribution. By that, I mean that, in showing such admirable character and selfless generosity, Ferguson might have inspired a lot of people, and the fruits of his seemingly small act might ultimately have been much more than his $10,000 check.

Daydreaming about the Mega Millions lottery at work, and recalling Ferguson’s check, I thought about what an inspiring story it would make, if someone were to win some $380+ million and then donate every last cent to charity. In fact, my imagination perhaps got a little carried away, as I began to think seriously about how it would go down.

Ferguson’s story certainly inspired me, but unfortunately it did not make huge waves in the media. Sadly, I don’t think he made any practical difference. But a man donating the entirety of his nine-figure lottery jackpot to a good cause—surely the world could not ignore such a deed. At least, I would hope that people would be inspired and motivated. Because, again, even nine figures is practically nothing against the bigger issues of today’s world. But it would seem a lot to the average person. It would make headlines, hopefully for more than one day. Hopefully, people would see that this man, being not some exceptional genius, was no different from them, but only luckier. And if he could give away all of luck's spoils separating him from them, then surely they too, having hearts, had the capacity for charity. And if everyone gave just a little, the amount would quickly dwarf the original contribution. More important than the money collected, however, would be the good feelings cultivated, that positive drive to do for one another. Much more than any amount of money, to generate and then spread that kind of active positivity would go a long way toward fixing our world.

I suppose I’m still dreaming. But as I sat there grinding out the day at work, I made a silent commitment. I don’t know to whom, but I vowed that, if I were to somehow win that jackpot, I would do exactly according to that dream. I have no idea to whom I would give all that money, but again the gesture would be more important than the details. If it made the news, then people, seeing the gesture, and having their hearts magnified by it, would in turn magnify the details by spreading more money to more causes. But I would have to give every last cent. If I kept even a little for myself, it would be a very different story. People would see the giving, but they would also note the saving for self, and I think it would give them sufficient excuse not to follow, but to instead conclude that I, being so lucky unlike them, could afford to give, because I had plenty to spare. No, in order to make any real difference, the sum would have to be massive, first of all, in order to make people notice, and it would have to be everything, so as to leave no easy excuses.

And I continued to think about it. And I realized that, truthfully, I couldn’t be that guy. I have too many flaws, too many weaknesses of character. The media, after raising me up for my good deed, would then dig up dirt to tear me down, as it ultimately tears everyone down. And, once again, the people would have their excuse not to follow, not to change, not to try. Martin Luther King, Jr., great American that he was, also had his weaknesses. Just the other day, my brother, responding to a news segment reflecting on King’s achievements, again pointed to the man’s philandering, which is not very much disputed. Does it take away from the good that King did? I guess not really. But it’s pretty bad. And it made me think, when people can point easily to such flaws in their would-be heroes, as my brother did with King, that again grants them an excuse. They see that they are justified in being as bad as their heroes, instead of trying to be as good.

Well, it’s only a dream.

No comments: