We as Division 44 have been reflecting on privilege and the benefits of which we are often unaware. The current war being waged in Ukraine (as I write this commentary) brings to mind my countless levels of privilege as a white male born during the years of WWII to an intact family whose father was exempt from the draft for health reasons, but gainfully employed. Contemplating the horrifying reports from Europe about refugees and victims of the war make me profoundly grateful for my privileges.
My husband was born just after the war, making both of us slightly ahead of the “baby boom” of post-war births that provided levels of competition amongst peers that we did not experience. Likewise we were too young to be called for the Korean War and able to avoid the draft for Vietnam. But we were just the right age to benefit from the early days of the gay movement and actually had a church (non-legal) wedding in 1969! We danced at the Stonewall, witnessed the creation of Lambda Legal and SAGE as well as the Association of Gay Psychologists in the 1970s. We have been privileged to have lived in “interesting times.” One of my heroes of this era, the Black psychologist, Carolyn Payton, EdD, left me her philosophy about social justice: “Who must do the hard things? Those who can!” (Payton, 1984). It seems to me “those who can” are often those who have benefited from the various privileges of their lives.
This new war also reminds me of another mentor, Peter O. Rees, EdD, who founded the Peace and Social Justice Committee of the Maine Psychological Association. We would often hike or ski together and discuss the various world issues. The primary idea I learned from him was that a major cause of the ills of our society and our world is human greed. The only cure for greed, we concluded, is gratitude.
Peter and I speculated that greed might be the most widely undiagnosed mental illness in the country and world. Wikipedia provides a useful definition: “Greed is an uncontrolled longing for increase in the acquisition or use of material gain...or social value, such as status, or power. Greed has been identified as undesirable throughout known human history because it creates behavior[al] conflict between personal and social goals.”
While I have not learned of any evidence-based treatments for this mental illness, or even empirical standards for diagnosing it, I do find that it is commonly ascribed to “human nature” and usually tolerated except in its most extreme forms such as Putin's invasion of Ukraine. It is sometimes minimized by calling it “avarice” or “envy”; or even idolized by our fascination with the world's billionaires.
Although it is easier to empathize with the people of Ukraine whose European appearance and modern buildings are familiar to our white western eyes, we must acknowledge the destructive greed and wars in Syria, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Congo, and elsewhere. We weep and prey for these victims and refugees of war.
I believe that those of us who have experienced various degrees of privilege have an obligation to recognize the fact of our privilege and to respond to it with gratitude for having received gifts that we did nothing to earn or deserve. It also seems to me that we also need to beware of the illness of greed.
My suggestion is that each day it is beneficial to consider all those personal blessings for which we are grateful. This practice not only reduces the power of greed in our lives, but also promotes better sleep: “Count your blessings instead of sheep”! I recommend this exercise nightly to push worries and fears away for a few hours of restorative sleep – even during these troubled times of rampant greed, war crimes, and atrocities.
Payton, C. R. (1984). Who must do the hard things? American Psychologist, 39(4), 391–397. [https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.39.4.391]