So far, our series on the Seven Deadly Sins has covered sloth, gluttony and envy. These last two may not seem to have much in common, yet they both share one thing: a sense of greed. Seeing as greed is today’s focus in our Deadly Sins series, it only seems fitting to point out the similarities between greed and the sins we have already covered. After all, gluttony is essentially the compulsion to greedily consume, while envy is a greedy appraisal of the lives of others.
But greed itself is not comprised solely of these two things. Moreover, not every person with this particular character defect will necessarily suffer from either gluttony or envy. They may not even share too many similarities in terms of their most basic underlying motivations. They will not struggle with envy because they do not place value on themselves by comparing themselves to others. They will not struggle with gluttony because they are aware that the hole they wish to fill cannot be filled through consumption alone. No—this is merely a person who wants more, no matter what the cost to their own lives or the lives of those around them.
As always, we will begin this discussion by outlining the basic definition of greed and why it is considered to be a sin. We will then talk about how we have exhibited greedy behavior while in active addiction. Finally, we will talk about how we can begin to overcome this particular character defect after we have entered recovery. Fortunately for those who have struggled with this defect above all others, the nature of recovery is directly opposed to greed in all of its malicious forms.
Defining Greed as a Cardinal Sin
There are many who believe that greed is actually a good thing. Philosophical economist Adam Smith believed that an invisible hand would guide individual actions to create unintended social benefits. The interpretation of his theory often follows that an individual or business could actually benefit others simply by acting in their own self-interest. Gordon Gekko, portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 classic Wall Street, takes a similar view:
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
To some extent, there may be some truth in this. For some, greed may have unintended social benefits. But it has also led to the disenfranchisement of thousands, if not more. Greed has put people on the street, and in some cases has gotten them killed. And while he may be a fictional character, Gordon Gekko is a prime example of one thing—the fact that greed will not make you happy, not matter how many material possessions it gains you. Basically, greedy behavior will cause you to push people away and risk your own happiness for the sole purpose of a few extra material possessions, along with the likely delusion of power that you do not truly have. Real power is in self-control, and knowing when to stop—things that people who succumb to avarice are prone to lack.
Cupidity does not always revolve around money or status, however. While wealth and power may be the most well-known examples, a person can be greedy for just about anything. Greed may factor into lust (a topic we’ll be covering soon enough), or it may even factor into a warped version of “true” romance. It also factors heavily into jealousy, a state in which we cannot accept the loss (or even perceived loss) of things we consider as belonging to us. This tendency to hoard possessions and people will not result in much self-satisfaction. Those who suffer from greed will eventually be confronted with the question as to when enough is enough. When will they stop wanting more, finally considering themselves to be fulfilled? Unfortunately, there is no good answer—in all likelihood, that day may never come.
Greed’s Role in Active Addiction
In active addiction, we have certainly been greedy in our attempts to drink and abuse other substances despite the effects that our choices have had upon those we love the most. But we have been prone to other forms of greed as well. Some of us drink and do drugs because we are unhappy about the lack of progress we have made on this front. Others among us simply do these things because our greedy nature has left us in a suspended state of apathy. Either way, much harm has likely been done.
When we succumb to avarice, it is not long before our emotional ties to most people and things in our lives become severed. We stop viewing people as people, but rather as simple tools. If we cannot see a way in which someone can benefit our lives from a very materialistic point of view, we will likely cut them out of our lives altogether. And somewhere down the line, we may find ourselves experiencing a great deal of guilt and remorse for this. We come to realize that loneliness and isolation have left us bereft of any true gain, and we may experience a great deal of anger and depression as a result of this.
This anger and depression should be a wake-up call, but it seldom is. Instead, it drives us to try and gain even more. This results in a cycle, a never-ending quest for gain despite our frequent failures. And even if we have not failed, our success will mean little to us. There is no one with whom to share our successes, and we find that each victory in our lives has become a hollow one. For many of us, the natural response to this realization will be to dive even further into our substance abuse, trying to fill a spiritual void that we have not truly identified.
We may have been truly caring and compassionate people before greed and utter selfishness drove our lives. Now, we are but shells of the people we once were. At times, we may feel the need to become our former selves and cast away the meaningless life we have adopted for ourselves. But after a time, we will not know how to do this. Our negative emotions will become even stronger, and the cycle will begin yet again. The only way to break the cycle is to stop thinking of ourselves altogether. Fortunately, the primary method of breaking the cycle—working in the service of others—is a fundamental aspect of our recovery.
Overcoming Greed in Recovery
To discuss how we may overcome our greed while in recovery, we might actually wish to return to the definition of avarice just briefly. Speaking of materialist desire, Thomas Aquinas once said that it “is a sin against God, just as all moral sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” In other words, greedy people are those who are lacking in spirituality. They are not necessarily trying to fill a spiritual void, but rather ignoring that the void exists while they focus primarily on other desires. They do not want fulfillment—they just want more.
To overcome this, we must find ways of filling the void that do not revolve around earthly desires. This is one instance in which treating yourself will not do the trick, because it will only be reinforcing the character defect of which you are attempting to rid yourself. Instead, you will need to focus largely on Step Two and the Second Tradition in order to come up with an idea regarding your own sense of spirituality. This will give you a way of processing the world in a manner that allows you to look at more than just what can be gained and what can be lost.
More importantly, focus on spirituality might open your mind up to the concept of giving rather than taking and receiving. You might come to realize the true value of service work, not to mention the fulfillment you get when you give to others without expecting anything in return. And when you have come into contact with those less fortunate, you might acquire a sense of gratitude for what you already have. If you can do this, then the need to constantly seek more should slowly begin to subside. As written in AA’s Ninth Step Promises, the fear of economic insecurity will leave you.
Letting go of greed should in many ways be a natural side effect of recovery, but it will require a great deal of effort for some of us. There are those among us who simply cannot imagine a life in which we are not working as hard as possible to gain and achieve more. But if we allow this drive to run our lives, we will not be living for anything visceral. We will be fueled by gain rather than virtue. And if we live like this for too long, we will find that we have not truly been living at all. There is always a time for change, and that time is now.