Let me get honest here for a minute. If I play the lottery, it throws me into days of imagining what I would do first, the wonderful places I would go, and the lovely things I would buy – so I never play. Even seeing reports of a particularly large lottery prize amount can send me into days of imaginary decisions around my newfound wealth. I don’t even need to purchase a ticket! And although the likelihood of me ever falling into true poverty is almost nonexistent, I also harbor fears about some event hurling me down the economic ladder.
And I am not alone. Americans spent almost $72 billion on lottery in 2019. Yes that is billions, more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of Luxembourg. Why do we gamble so much on a game where the odds of winning are extremely remote statistically? Undoubtedly, some people play because they think, unrealistically, that they will win. I believe many people play the lottery as an entertainment – buying the ticket is an invitation to fantasize about winning. That is somehow worth the cost for them, so they play again.
And although the likelihood of me ever falling into true poverty is almost nonexistent, I also harbor fears about some event hurling me down the economic ladder. Being poor is dire in America. Living in poverty has adverse effects in every aspect of life, and studies show it is extremely difficult to pull yourself out of poverty – even over a period of generations. Upward economic mobility in America is statistically difficult and downward mobility is shockingly common, particularly if you are non-white or in certain parts of the country.
There are good reasons to fear – and yet I am privileged in a way that true poverty is an extremely remote possibility. I say this not only because of my financial position, but also because of my heritage (European-American), gender (male), higher level of education, and perhaps most importantly my network of social and work connections. Studies show that wealth and poverty are highly localized – that is that my understanding of poverty is based on people who are less wealthy than me, but it does not have to be by much. So my fear of poverty may be about losing comparatively little of my status.
For me, there are two ways to think about this. One is from a psychological perspective and one is from a spiritual one.
From a psychological perspective, I try to be mindful of the effect these fears and fantasies have on my life. When I look beyond my own location: circumstances, community, relationships, and activities — to invest in dreams about how my life might be different (better or worse), I am turning away from my life as it is. I turn away from recognizing the resources and advantages I have, and how equipped I am to deal with the challenges my life presents.
I am withdrawing my attention from the richness of my own life, to be present to myself and those surrounding me, and investing it in something that is beyond unproductive. Worse than that, this redirection of my attention generally makes me feel bad about myself and my life as it is – to no good purpose!
This relates to my spiritual perspective on these fears and fantasies about money. Having longing in my life is a wonderful thing – longing for love and beauty, for deep connection, for meaning and purpose. And, as I find God in all of these things, then my longing is ultimately for God – which creates orientation to my whole life. It is like the Sufi mystic Rumi says, “God has said, ‘Your calling my name is my reply. Your longing for me is my message to you…” Or this from Saint Augustine: “The desire is thy prayers; and if thy desire is without ceasing, thy prayer will also be without ceasing. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer.”
To put this another way, spending my attention on longing for things money can buy or into fears of what might happen if I lost my financial standing, distracts from seeing God all around me and being grateful for my many blessings. It breaks off my relationships with God. I believe, in a Buddhist way, that being here, now, as I am, in my true circumstance is the path to enlightenment.
I find three things help me to resist both fear and fantasy about money. One is prayer, which by its nature grounds and centers me. It also recognizes that I am not the sole driver of my experience; that there is a force greater even than my imagining, which is underlying the universe.
Another is gratitude, for all of the amazing richness in my life. This includes the network of loving people that surrounds me, so that I do not have to fear isolation or lack of resources if, through some terrible circumstance, I did lose all of my financial means. A third is to learn, to use my brain to better understand my position in the economy and that of others, so that I can more and more take up humility, to be more compassionate and loving of others.
These are practices, by which I mean actions that grow and develop, yet with neglect will wither and become ineffective. I am not always the best practitioner! Yet I am grateful to have these to rely upon as resources to keep me out of fear or fantasy around financial wealth.
Mark Ewert is a member of the Faith and Money Network Board of Directors and a consultant, facilitator, and teacher engaged in building cultures of skillful generosity within faith communities, including congregations, religious denominations, camps, and retreat centers.
According to Lendedu.com: https://lendedu.com/blog/how-much-do-americans-spend-on-the-lottery/
 In 2018, according to the World Bank: https://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/GDP.pdf
 According the Brookings Institution, it is easier to move from the economic bottom to top in the UK, Denmark, and Canada than the US. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2018/01/11/raj-chetty-in-14-charts-big-findings-on-opportunity-and-mobility-we-should-know/