Margin, Poverty, and Honor

It is difficult for someone who lives hand-to-mouth to act honorably when faced with a choice which involves what they consider survival. I had a guy—we’ll call him Joe—working for me, 3 weeks away from finishing a big job, who was lured away by a competitor offering the prospect of longer-term employment. The competitor made it clear that his offer would not be there in 3 weeks. As a result of Joe leaving, I finished the job myself and made a mistake which ended up costing me a few thousand dollars, a mistake which, quite probably, Joe would not have made.

Joe lived in a rented mobile home. I don’t really know much about his situation beyond that, but I do know that most of the guys in the trade I’m in (electrical specifically, but it applies to much of the construction trade) are less than a month away from disaster financially. I know—I’ve been there. When you have that kind of margin—or, should I say, really don’t have any margin—it’s difficult to remain loyal to someone, or to act with integrity. You have to make decisions based on the pressures of the moment, and the prospects (as you see them) for the immediate future. You may say that you are honorable, but 99 times out of 100, the dollar will trump principle.

The dollar will also erode honor in one who is well off, or seems to be, but for different reasons. There is not the desperation there, but greed in its insidious manner gets hold of desire, and the greedy man finds himself justifying every decision based on financial outcome. Some who are well-off see themselves just as close to disaster as Joe did, even though in a financial crisis they could probably sustain themselves indefinitely (admittedly at a lower standard of living). The mindset of poverty is again at work in such cases—primarily through perception, which becomes reality for the perceiver.

Maybe that’s why the writer of Proverbs said,

Two things I ask of you, O Lord;

do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

give me neither poverty nor riches,

but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

and say, “Who is the Lord?”

Or I may become poor and steal,

and so dishonor the name of my God.

“Neither poverty nor riches.” It’s hard to walk a line of balance in such a way as to avoid either extreme. But essentially, it comes down to attitude. True wealth is far more a matter of mindset than it is of possessions. The one who has the most possessions may feel totally impoverished—someone–Rockefeller?–once quipped, when asked how much was enough, “MORE!” On the other hand, the poorest man may own the wealth of the world, if he truly believes it so in the core of his being.

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