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  • Reverend James Squire

A Vast Invisible Inheritance

I had assigned an essay in ethics class for students to write about what they viewed as success in life and how that related to working hard to accomplish that success. What value in their wheelhouse would they use to accomplish a life worth living? The essay would not be shared in class. I would be the only person to read it.

As I was reading through the papers, I came across an essay that stopped me in my ethical tracks. A student wrote that his father informed him that the family had enough money that this student would never have to worry about money and wouldn’t need to work if he chose not to. I knew the family. I knew the father was being honest. I am aware of Warren Buffett’s attitude toward leaving his vast fortune to his children. He said, “that his children would be given enough money so that his children would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.” We will be hearing more about inheritance to children as things heat up with the Gates divorce proceedings so this a great time to explore the ethics of inheritance, money, and the vast invisible inheritance.

Money doesn’t buy you happiness, but it does buy you something that is at the heart of ethics that can lead to happiness. It buys you access and choice. Trustafarians, a term used to describe children of the very wealthy, are sometimes subject to excesses that work against them. Gloria Vanderbilt wanted to avoid this because of some of her family history so Anderson Cooper, her son, received nothing from her. Anderson seconded this action by his mother by saying, “Unearned money is a curse.” But there are a multitude who would shout, “Curse me! I can take it!” Inheritance is not an equal opportunity phenomenon. Since Anderson had access to a great education and doors that were opened for him, he has been able to do something he loves and make $11 million a year so in a very distinct way he was given an inheritance that I refer to as the “vast invisible inheritance”.

Our “vast invisible ethical inheritance” contains access, choices, back up, and a respect for hard work.” Think of anyone who succeeds against all odds! That’s the movie we want to see not where everything is just given to another where they “have no skin in the game.” We partner emotionally with people who are hard workers.

Recently Jason Wingard was selected as the next President of Temple University. He is the first African American to serve in that office. When he was asked the secret to his success, he responded by saying “that you have to get up early and work harder than the next guy.” Kamala Harris put it another way, “I have “no” for breakfast!” I wrote about work in my memoir and the lesson that I learned from my cousin, The Reverend Noble Moyer Smith, the first in our extended family to go to college. Noble was an outstanding athlete who lost his college football scholarship because of knee injuries, worked three jobs, and achieved all of his dreams. He was also a professional baseball umpire who called Pete Rose out at third base on several occasions. When I asked him the secret to his success on a summer evening sitting on a concrete step, he said, simply: “Never let anyone ever outwork you!”

Where did that attitude originate for Noble and me? All of us are intergenerational people. I watched Noble’s father leave every morning to work at glass tube making factory taking the bus to work and then after that job going directly to a second job for eight hours as a school janitor, then home, and start all over again the next morning. My father had a sixth-grade education. I watched my father struggle to recover from a crippling stroke by working tirelessly for a year with my weights in a working-class form of rehab to go back to a job that was demeaning for him to do, but he did it. Noble’s father and my father are part of “our vast invisible inheritance.” In the words of Langston Hughes, the celebrated African American poet, in describing the value of work so well when he said, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. But all the time I’se been a’climbin on.” Sometimes back up and mentors take different forms. I learned more from a guy who was crippled from a stroke for a good part of my life than I did from anyone behind ivy covered classroom walls pouring forth a different form of wisdom.

My father loved baseball and the Phillies so I took him to a game, dropped him off near the stadium entrance, returned and helped him get to a seat in the nosebleed territory. He was excited. He had a quickness in his step. Something happened, perhaps a home run by a Phillies’ player. Everybody stood up and clapped. He stood to join in. His hands wouldn’t come together because he was spastic from his stroke and was like a little child trying to bring his hands together to make a sound. He forgot where he was. He forgot to be embarrassed. I looked him in the eye and applauded. He knew I could care less about baseball. He knew what I was applauding, “a vast invisible inheritance.”

Recall the student who I mentioned in my ethics class who was told that he wouldn’t have to work hard in his life? Last I checked with him, he is working harder than most. He knows the importance of a “vast invisible inheritance” as well. I am very proud of him because he didn’t have to but wanted to work for what he got! He made the right choice. He will be a model for many others who have that choice to make, to work or not to work. They will choose a blessing or a curse. As intergenerational people we have an ethical duty to choose a blessing.

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