This blog is about the story of my family here in America. We arrived in the 1630s as Puritans, and became the common folk of the New World.

The embarrassment of wealth in the United States


My ancestors, the Puritans, were not poor. They were not Pilgrims. They didn't land at Plymouth Rock, they landed at Boston Harbor. And if you know the difference between the success of these two areas, you know which group grew richer.

Now waitaminute, they weren't wealthy aristocrats. They didn't come from the landed gentry of England. They were hard-working farmers, clergymen, and teachers. They believed in a very strict work ethic. They tilled the land, stored crops left over for a rainy day, built cities. They were involved with the breaking away from England, were revolutionaries, and helped to build the new country of the United States of America. And along the way, they became embarrassed by their wealth. And that embarrassment of the wealthy citizens of the United States continues to this day.

Instead of pointing to the Puritans as the people who who our ancestors, the United States decided to point to the Pilgrims. They didn't didn't want to be associated with the obscene wealth of places like Boston Harbor. They wanted the founding to be on Plymouth Rock, by a group that was so poor that they could barely get by, and needed help being fed, on Thanksgiving, by the local Native Americans. The image of poverty, and humility, is more appealing.

In the meantime, the Puritans were sending ships back and forth just about every day to England, and the world. Their attitude of hard work and seeing to it that life got better with every generation became the "American Work Ethic". The United States prospered. Eventually the entire country was producing enough food to feed the world, and building cities, building roads. It must have been astonishing to see. And embarrassing.

If you live in the U.S., and are embarrassed by your wealth, I understand. My ancestors would have been puzzled by the mega-churches that look more like football stadiums, with jumbo screens, than anything eccelsastical. Seeing so many people eat at restaurants, and pay so much, would seen very strange to them. They would be embarrassed by the "conspicuous consumption".

As a kid growing up in Minnesota, this dichotomy fascinated me. On the one hand, the faith that I learned spoke of the evils of money, that rich people couldn't go to heaven. And on the other hand, I was raised to work hard, be frugal, and see what kind of interest I could get on my savings.

The solution, of course, is that no one considers themselves rich. No matter how many earthly possessions they have, their houses, their cars, their computers, their restaurant meals, they aren't wealthy. It's a sliding scale. Only the other people are wealthy. And it's an embarrassment of wealth.
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