More Than Money
Issue #33

Embracing The Gift

Table of Contents

“What is the Money for?”

by Bob Kenny

The $41 trillion dollar wealth transfer that is predicted to occur over the next half-century is a phenomenon that is almost impossible to fully comprehend. Its magnitude is hard to grasp. However, I believe that this huge asset transfer from one generation to another is a sociological event that will shape our society for far longer than 50 years; I think it will shape the entire future of humanity. It is my hope that how it will impact each of us individually, and, in turn, how each of us will influence our society as a result of what we have received, will be the topic of much discussion.

We are living in a culture and a time of affluence unique in history. As a reader of this publication, you probably have been at least partially affected by the wealth transfer, perhaps in ways you are not fully aware. We can use these next 50 years, individually and collectively (in the words of sociologist Paul Schervish), “to achieve what is deeper in life.” Or we can succumb, as he says, to “new temptations toward materialism and superficiality.” We have choices to make. Unfortunately, as Schervish notes, “there is no automatic connection between affluence and wisdom.” (See More Than Money Journal, “Passing the Torch: The Great Wealth Transfer,” Issue 32, p. 7.)

So how do we make wise choices? First, we need to decide whether or not we are going to enter a discernment process. More Than Money exists to provide a context, a place, and a community where you can participate in a process of discernment.

For myself, contemplating this wealth transfer has led me to reflect on how I have been personally affected by it. After college, I taught in a small Catholic high school for a few years. We were given a small salary, which I thought of as a stipend. I was teaching while trying to figure out what to do with my life. It was a great experience.

Along the way, I became interested in how young people make decisions about social and moral issues. I was acceptedto study moral reasoning with a famous psychologist at Harvard. Although I was delighted to be accepted, I had no idea how I was going to pay for a Harvard tuition bill.

Then a wise and dear family friend offered to pay for my studies at Harvard. The whole nine yards—tuition, housing, board, books, all expenses! It was an incredible gift. I did not realize it at the time, but this gift was a type of wealth transfer. The beginning of a sociological event was having an effect on me personally.

“The gift” put me at Harvard, with everything paid for, plus ample spending money. The gift was an education in my field of choice that would allow me many possibilities for the rest of my life. Although, on the surface, it looked as if I had the perfect life, the gift helped me realize that having anything I wanted was not all fun all the time. Like so many people, I believed that if I had the money to do all the things I wanted to do, I would be happy, if not ecstatic. When I found out it was not true, it changed me; and it started to change the way I made sense of the world. I needed to discern a path for my future.

Questions started to emerge: Where was my motivation? Where was my passion? What contribution did I want to make? The adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” was one I had heard often, and now it came to mind often. Sure, there were many people who had been given much more, but there were vastly more who had been given far less. What did this gift really mean for me? What was the money for?

As I continued to question, to contemplate, and to discern, I found that my gift provided me with the freedom to look beyond myself. My basic needs were taken care of and I had a great education that ensured I would be able to find an interesting job and a good livelihood. I was able to look outward, beyond myself, and in so doing, to begin to close the gap between where I was, where I wanted to be, and what I wanted the world to be someday.

The process of discernment helped me understand that I wanted to make my contribution to the world as a professional in the “no profit for me” world. (You might say that I took a “vow of middle class.”) I made a distinct, conscious choice not to work to acquire lots of money, but to work in the non-profit world. However, without “the gift” I am not certain I ever would have made such a choice. I think it would have been easier to convince myself that I could not afford to make that choice. I believe I made a wise decision.

In retrospect, I realize that I needed to make a wise choice if I had any hope of being happy. In the last issue of More Than Money Journal, when Paul Schervish said, “There is no automatic connection between affluence and wisdom,” he also said that “with affluence, a large part of decision-making around survival and day-to-day living is taken care of; the economic problem is solved. This adds new temptations toward materialism and superficiality, but it also offers opportunities to achieve what is deeper in your life.” (p. 7)

The gift I received was modest when viewed in the context of $41 trillion dollars, yet it gave me the freedom and the space to go through the process of discernment. I will be forever grateful for that opportunity “to achieve what is deeper in [my] life.”

More Than Money as an organization is about helping people to be mindful of opportunities to achieve what is deeper in life. It is about challenging the myth that money is life’s report card. Ultimately, it is about transforming the world. As each of us discerns how we will embrace the sociological event of wealth transfer, we are choosing a path for the future and leaving a mark on the world.

Bob Kenny, Ed.D., is the executive director of More Than Money. For more than 20 years, he has worked with individuals, communities, and organizations to identify and address the gaps between their stated values and the reality of their lives.