I don’t know how the reading list looked in your high school English classes. But in mine, the teachers clearly believed we kids should absorb books that achieved, to quote Woody Allen, “total heaviosity.” These serious message novels were chosen to shake us out of our suburban-bred complacent lethargy. They were profound. They were penetrating. They were pithy.
They exhibited great gobs of pith.
On a reading list that included Catcher in the Rye, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Old Man and the Sea, the academicians tossed in a slim John Steinbeck volume called The Pearl.
Those of you who’ve read The Pearl probably recall the basics. The protagonist, Kino, is a poor fisherman who finds a huge lucid pearl and realizes he’s stumbled on great wealth. But the pearl isn’t the answer to his dreams; it’s the start of his nightmares. After a string of events involving his trying to exchange the pearl for the vast sums it’s worth, he finally realizes the bauble is a curse, not a blessing and he … well, I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t yet read this classic.
The heavy message was unmistakable. In a world that values moolah above all else, it is wise to remember that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
In the past week or two, a skein of news stories has convinced me that among those who’ve read and taken The Pearl to heart are legendary music maker Sting, actress Keira Knightley, world-famous investor Warren Buffett and a great many other ultra-rich folks whose gigantic bankrolls are equaled by their grave concern about the weighty burdens of jaw-dropping affluence.
A stinging announcement
Few missed the announcement that Sting, worth more than $300 million, won’t be leaving his sons and daughters much in the way of inheritance.
“I certainly don’t want to leave them trust funds that are albatrosses round their necks, ” he told interviewers. “They have to work. All my kids know that, and they rarely ask me for anything, which I really respect and appreciate.”
Speaking of appreciation, I came away from that news item with deeper regard for Sting. He worked his way up from a working class neighborhood in Great Britain to international fame and fabulous wealth, and apparently recognized along the way that making it on your own is a lot more rewarding than having millions handed to you. He won’t deny his kids a chance at a similar joy ride.
Was it just coincidence another story with a related message appeared almost the same day? That was the Telegraph story about a survey of the super deep-pocketed, many apparently readers of The Pearl. “One in seven billionaires or multi-millionaires is worried their wealth could be depriving their children of drive and ambition, says a survey that affords a rare glimpse into the minds of the ultra-rich, ” the piece by social affairs editor John Bingham reported.
Bingham went on to note that the report, “The Meaning of Wealth in the 21st Century, ” by law firm Withersworldwide, surveyed 4, 500 mega-rich individuals from North America, Asia and Europe and included detailed interviews with 16 families who have been all but buried in a canyon of cash.
Among the wealthiest of those surveyed, the concern that lurked just after concerns about their own health was what effect insane riches would have on their sons’ and daughters’ determination to make their way in the world.
“For many parents, the main concern is that great wealth will scotch the individual ambition of their children, ” Bingham quoted the report as stating.
And that could result in them indulging in too much Scotch.
It’s possible that before he became the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett also immersed himself in a dog-eared paperback copy of Steinbeck’s novella.
Buffett long ago went on record to assert that his sons and daughters wouldn’t be in line for zillionaire status upon his passing. He didn’t intend to leave them much, he said, intoning something along the lines of, “I want to give them enough to do something, but not so much that they will be able to do nothing.”
Back in Britain, actress Keira Knightley just may be another fan of The Pearl. In spite of having amassed an estimated net worth of $50 million in the pursuit of moviemaking, the 29-year-old thespian and model keeps herself on a tight financial leash, allowing herself an annual allowance of a mere $50, 000.
“I think living an [expensive] lifestyle means you can’t hang out with people who don’t live that lifestyle, ” Knightley opined in an interview with Glamour magazine. She added of big money that, “It alienates you. Some of my best, most hilarious times have been in the least luxurious places.”
To which Us Weekly, hewing the predictable line, editorialized, “Um, what?”
Um, nothing. Knightley would probably get on well with Buffett, who’s been heard to observe that prodigious riches bring with them diminishing returns.
The insight my high school’s English teachers would have wanted us teens to absorb is that when it comes to wealth, enough may be enough.
As pearls of wisdom go, that’s a real gem.