It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, pg 18
They were rising, or tailing the surface. “It’s hard to imitate,” Doug said. “They are feasting on something emerging.” I noted in the swirls of the amber surface a few mayflies with yellow bodies. The river waters smelled of fresh, cold rain from a few days ago. The brown trout (the Scottish kind Doug told me) were dancing not more than ten feet from where we were wading, but we could not see them, even with our polarized glasses. The autumn leaves floated in and out of the swirls, and my fingers no longer felt numb as they did earlier in the day.
The next thirty minutes, we kept on trying multitudes of fly patterns that Doug had in his small box. Inside the dark green lid, diminutive patterns lined up handsomely, from small dark nymphs, looking somewhat sinister with beetle like wings, to muddler minnow streamers with shapely little shaved heads. And then, finally out of options, I took the last pattern I had not tried, a red ant pattern, tied on a minute number 20 hook tightly wound with rust colored thin yarn. As soon as I roll cast the fly line, and the tiny ant turned over to float, I heard a gentle suction beneath the water and felt the line tighten. A small trout with orange spots shimmered in the water, with its silver belly moving sideways, churning the waters in its wake. “It’s a brown, but looks like a rainbow trout,” I said to Doug as he came over to help me take a look, and helped me unhook and release the fish. It was the first fish that took the fly all day. But as soon as I let the line out again, this time whipping it a little upstream, I would see the ant, now slightly battered, disappear again. Another trout, looking like a twin of the first, sprung into action, now tugging at my rod. As Doug released it back into the water, it nudged its head a few times against the sand, still feeling where the wire-thin hook had penetrated in its mouth.
Fishing works like that, I supposed, going all day without any success, but then in a few moments, with just two casts, rewarded with small treasures. Trout with miniscule brains can somehow outwit fishers with thousand-dollar equipment. An experience that convinces you, after all, that we were given permission to glimpse into their secluded world, a rare privilege as recipients of a moment of grace, before the veil closed.
Doug, my “guide,” really is the father of the bride my son, Ty, married over the summer. We had spoken of going out together to fish for a while. And now, in the waning days of the fall, we found a day to travel west from the city into the stretches of water near the border of Pennsylvania. He, an avid fisherman, let me borrow his equipment and lead me to the best spots, which is a substantial, and necessary, part of a successful trip.
Before we saw the day close, a bigger trout took Doug’s Cahill grey pattern, and he was in for a good fight. After Doug fought the sixteen inch brown with a distended belly full of insects, and released it back into the amber water, we packed up and headed for his Dodge.
As I imagined the trout going up and down in the stream to catch their morsels in front of me, I had a strange overlap of images. I could not help but to be reminded of the charts of the volatile market captured almost daily in the headlines. It was a few weeks after the Dow lost more than 1000 points, down to the 8000 level that we had not seen since 1998. It was to come up again, ever briefly, and dip to 7000. The volatile market would vacillate up and down, inevitably ending lower. The traders, and ordinary investors, were caught in a downwards spiral.
Unlike the market, you have only something to gain in the river (unless you lose your lures or flies in a snag), and even if you do not catch fish, you know they are there (and sometimes see them, a skittish few, swimming in front of you.) And groups like Trout Unlimited and B.A.S.S. have now made the “catch and release” policy popular, with many of the streams being “no kill zones”, so the idea is we come home without a trophy, worthy of bragging or not. Even without a catch, the serenade of the water, and the afternoon sun warming your face, all amount to a good day even without any action.
As I sought to untangle my lines caused by my inexperience of back casting a fly line, my mind kept on overlapping my effort to find elusive fish in a river, with the gyrations of the market (a tangled mess indeed). It was not long ago that catching fish, or hunting for deer was an economic necessity. Perhaps we have traded our grey Wall Street suit for waders, and the cold, dehumanized floors of Wall Street to a certain grace of the recreational outdoors, two ventures that share in a Darwinian quest for success. Just as we find the stretches of a river hard to read, even seasoned investors and hedge fund managers see the market as being perplexing and difficult to read. Alan Greenspan noted just as much in his recent congressional testimony, confessing that he had “found a flaw” in his ideology and “that’s precisely the reason I was shocked.” The murky river of the economy confounded even the best of the experts.
The forces of nature, too, can be wicked and unrelenting toward the Earth’s inhabitants. Last year, for example, the Delaware River in the Nor’easter of 2007, and surrounding streams suddenly overflowed and flooded overnight, washing away homes along the riverbanks. We might see such incidents as inevitable consequences outside of our control. But if the proper response to nature is to admit that we do not fully understand her mysteries, shall we not do the same with the market?
Lurking deeper beneath the currents of the economic ecosystem is an assumption, or perhaps a presumption. Greenspan had faith in the self-correction of the system, and he was shocked to find that greed and deceit had unbridled multiplying effects. Adam Smith, who many consider to be the father of modern economics, even speaks of the “invisible hand” guiding over each decision made in self interests, which he called “self love.” He stated in The Wealth of Nations in 1776, “by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” (Italics mine) We presume in such goodness, a self-correction, to guide our economic growth. But in these days when greed and fear melts down the economy, or when our favorite fishing stretch does violence to our world, we might do well to consider what the Bible calls the “substance of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) at work that challenges our presumptions. For the question concerns issues of faith, whether it be our faith in natural or economic cycles or in the “invisible hand.” What can we learn when our expectations go awry? And will our economy, like the river, recover?
Doug operates a small elevator company called HandiLift, which serves the metropolitan New York area with handicap accessible elevators. As we negotiated the highways, he told me about his involvement with an entrepreneurial business group. They have success accountability and network sessions, but he felt he had a different bottom line than the others. In a recent newspaper interview, Doug stated:
"We could be a smaller business with more money," Boydston says. "But we’re trying to grow something here. It’s not just growth for its own sake…”
Seeking quality breeds quality, he points out. “If I don’t buy quality, (our vendors are) not going to make it for me.” Doug seems to run his company with multiple bottom lines, seeking more than profit for profit’s sake. He desires to serve his employees, helping them to thrive in his business environment, and raising the quality of his product, from service to execution.
A multiple bottom line would include concerns for ethics and community values. In my conversations with entrepreneurs like Doug, business leaders are increasingly open to considering multiple bottom lines, considering financial, social, environmental and spiritual bottom lines.
David Miller, another friend, founded the Avodah Institute in Princeton,
(and also teaches at Princeton University and serves as the Director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative), to deal with these issues
between workplace and faith. He states in a recent book:
Businesspeople want the ability to bring their whole selves to work--mind, body, and soul--and are no longer satisfied with sacrificing their core identities.... People in the workplace of all levels and types no longer seem willing to leave their soul with the car in the parking lot.
(From God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement)
In my recent discussions with David, we spoke of the overlap of business and art, with a particular focus on this issue of multiple bottom lines. I, of course, advocate for the consideration for beauty, and a nuanced (think color, rather than black and white) approach to be considered even in a hard-nosed business environment.
But, apparently as I have learned of late, having multiple bottom lines from a faith perspective requires a deeper consideration of how we view ourselves, our motives, our priorities and values, or, as Augustine, the 4th century theologian put it, our “order of loves.“
At a recent Entrepreneurial Forum in New York City, I heard a lucid perspective of these questions. Dr. Tim Keller spoke to define the bottom line for Christians.
Tim quotes 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 of the New Testament. It’s the passage that ends with verses that are often used in weddings:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
“You are supposed to be loving your neighbor as yourself. That is your bottom line. And profits are a means to that end,” he stated. He went on to distinguish between motives that bring honor to only yourself, and the motive to give honor to others. Augustine framed these competing realities in “The City of God”: contrasting “the city of men,” driven by self-centered motives, with “The City of God,” driven by other-centered motives.
But this, assuredly, is easier said than done. Love is not just a sentiment or an ideal, but repeated actions of self-sacrifice for the good of others. This notion runs counter to our survival instincts. In the Darwinian competition of a business reality, it is hard to think beyond the bottom line of a profit motive.
Christians can easily do lip service to these verses, if we treat this verse as an “ideal” reality, but not possible to put into practice. We do often use these verses in marriage ceremonies, but Christian couples experience as much struggles in marriages as non-Christian couples. If we fall short of implementing this principle in our marriages, what are the chances of doing so in our businesses?
Surely finding a business with the bottom line of love can be as elusive as finding a native trout on a cold autumn day.
But the difficulty of execution does not prevent us from thinking through the inevitable consequences of not living in a principled manner consistent with Biblical ordinances. The consequences of not doing so may be far worse than the necessary cost and sacrifice required. We must consider the cost of the stripping of human decency based on a single bottom line of survival, and the effect of dehumanization that will make the enterprise ultimately not sustainable. Pollution due to industrial growth has taught us that inhospitable environments do not ultimately contribute to a thriving economy. Perhaps we need to look at the economy, too, as a river; a river that flows into and out of the heart of our cities. And that river has a reservoir called Wall Street whose tributaries trickle into Main Street.
When imbalance in the economy creates havoc, the tendency is to come up with regulations to safeguard us from experiencing another painful downturn, or to limit greed and pollution from taking over. And of course, such measures must be taken to force a paradigm shift in the industry. But corrective measures will not change human behaviors ultimately, for laws can be designed only to limit evil, but cannot create good. We need generative measures that will tap into the holistic realities of community and effect lasting change.
“But perfect love drives out fear,” writes St. John, “because fear has to do with punishment.” (John 4:18) As Biblical love casts out all fear, our efforts must formulate ways to invite creative risks that can counter fear. We need to change the meaning of success to include the holistic thriving of all inhabitants, in order to have meaningful reform. But to consider such a thriving, we must return to our first loves. To be convinced that rivers need to be cleaned up, we must remember the experience of a beautiful river that once was. We need to re-experience our love for the river that once was, so that we can come up with a proper stewardship strategy.
This re-envisioning involves a deeper reflection on the nature of loves, and even challenges the assumptions about economics, as did Adam Smith of the Scottish Enlightenment. Such a journey will consider not just the outcome, but the process of integration that moves us toward a change in belief system.
Dr. Elaine Scarry of Harvard, in her classic little book called Beauty and Being Just, states, “Beauty, sooner or later, brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors. (pg. 31) In other words, the encounter with beauty convicts us, and that conviction causes transformation. She continues:
The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true. Both in the account that assumes the existence of the immortal realm and in the account that assumes the nonexistence of the immortal realm, beauty is a starting place for education. (pg. 31)
I am well acquainted with the beauty of a trout. If not, I may not be so ready to release them back. And as I saw them swim away, I asked myself why was a trout made so beautiful if all it is asked to do is survive in the river? If the function of survival were its only bottom line, then why this wasteful extravagance in the details of intricate design? A gentle reminder of ephemeral nature of our lives does point to the beauty of the moment. And this does not require faith in the Creator. An atheist and a theist can share a common fly stream. Standing side by side, we can both be “educated” by the details of extravagance.
Then I asked myself, what is the object of such beauty that would sway our business to operate differently, to “locate what is true” in the economy?
St. Paul, when he was writing his epistle to a group in Corinth, was perfectly aware that such teachings and seeking after truth will seem “impossible” to mortal ears. And yet, he did not see himself operating in a gap between the ideal and the real. He saw it as the greater Reality at work behind the convoluted worldly system devoid of hope. That’s why he makes an audacious claim that “Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) The impossible becomes the only path to the future, and the Good News is to claim that Christ, the very embodiment of love, prepared that path to appear before us.
And if he is right, then all things or systems that work against the principle of love will fail eventually. Sacrificial love, in other words, is the only sustainable operating force in the universe. We can complain that we simply cannot accept the assumptions proposed here; but Christians should not be able to operate, if we do indeed believe these principles, in some half way land, on one hand claiming to believe the ordinances, but also functionally accepting the worldly systems at work as the only reality.
The medium of beauty in a business world is the workers that make the businesses run. It’s not the stock options or profit. They comprise far more capacity, and far deeper longing and invigorated promise for future generations than the system gives them credit for. So the question is not whether they are paid enough, or given enough work: the question is, does the workplace enlarge humanity, or endanger humanity.
Thus, we need to see the market not just as a tool to make money, but a complex labyrinth with a generative creative order. In such an ecosystem, we need to consider investments as a form of stewardship. Conversely, we may redefine investments as a way to create and sustain beauty, rather than gain power for ourselves. And true beauty, at her truest aim, is a humble stream that flows through the heart of a city, re-humanizing its inhabitants, and allowing them to breath in what would otherwise be unbearable air.
Beauty flows out of love. Beauty is in the presence of love, an aroma of re-creation. A beautiful business would consider the context of that busy-ness, to create an opportunity for fully human expression to take place. I asked one Christian executive what a beautiful business would look like to him. He paused for a long time and said: “it’s when I had to fire my staff due to restructuring, and instead of having my human resources person fire them, I spent time with them to notify them personally and to ask if they would allow me to help them transition into a position with another company. It was one of the hardest times of my life, but looking back, I needed to do that.” Such care may not be taught in business schools (imagine a class called “Leadership 101: how to let your staff go.”) But would be part of a fallen, but re-humanized business practice.
The floors of the stock exchange, by contrast, can be a place of brutal commerce, devoid of that humanity. But the Exchange floors are not the only place where forces of dehumanization can work. Same thing can be said of Chelsea art galleries, our universities, or even church offices. Our art, education and spiritual endeavors must be hospitable, beyond just utilitarian functionality, to invite others to a journey toward the City of God. We must be invested in so much more than profit driven reality if our bottom line is sacrificial love, as defined by the Bible.
It does make sense to me, then, that Doug operates a Handicapped accessible elevator service. It even seems symbolic. He is considering service toward a re-humanized city. Often is the case that our limitations, even our handicaps, can point us to a greater innovation, even greater art. Even an elevator can be as beautiful as a trout stream.
Art, too, can refract beauty in its wake. Art follows nature, pointing to the same generative reality. Art, too, can serve, just as connected to the disabled realities of our lives. But art has also presumed in the “invisible hand” that guides the process, never questioning that ego-filled landscape of art might regress, rather than progress. Perhaps we need to consider that rooted beneath all of art is a much more sane and humble premise than celebrity or success. Perhaps art is to the economy what trout are to a stream: beauty that once caught, can be, and needs to be, released back generously into the cultural waters so that those who come after us can enjoy them. Perhaps that generosity is what makes waters teeming with created gems that delight our senses and sustain our well-being.