Most of us like stories, especially when we are young. And we like stories that begin at ground O and ascend on up toward 100. An upward climb from low to high is preferable to a downward slide from high to low. “High” usually represents success, while “low” represents failure. So when a boy or girl brings home a report card, he or she wants to report to inquiring parents: I got a high grade, rather than admitting: they gave me a low grade.
That mindset is behind a lot of good films that record the hero or heroine of the story proving to be a success because they moved from low to high in their life passageway. Few films achieve success if they depict the central character of a film in a downward spin, ending in disaster or failure.
True though this be, many of us carry the burden of failures in our lives. They may not be obvious to others. In our youth we had dreams of successes in what we set out to achieve: happy marriages, lucrative business ventures, children of whom we could be proud, fine reputations, the house of our dreams, early retirement followed by the pursuit of enriching past-times about which we had always dreamed, associations with the rich and famous, reputations gaining us access to the pinnacles of power and prestige. But, instead we may wake up each morning facing a day in which we have to drag ourselves from morning to night: faltering marriages, troubled children, collapsing business ventures, failing health, distrust from among colleagues, constantly being overlooked in the arena of promotions, being the butt of jokes, disdain among collaborators, reputation for being a loser, etc.
Early dreams of being climbers, that is, those who have effortlessly moved from the lower echelons of life upward on a constant climb toward goals that I have pursued all my life, thrill and excite us. EXCELSIOR! has been a dream to be achieved. Who would not want that to be emblazoned on our life story! The counterpart of that, of course, is LOSER. To be regarded in this way is a dampener difficult to bear outwardly, and inwardly depressing and deflating. Undoubtedly many suicides terminate the lives of those enshrouded with a constant sense of their inability to escape the sense of being enclosed in a hole in the ground from which no escape is possible.
It makes an interesting comparison to present a counter situation in which the dynamic of upward and downward is changed from downward to upward, and presented as movement from upward to downward. As depressing as some of the above description appears, at least the theme of upward and onward pervades the description of the scene presented. But there’s another way of describing movement between down and up, in which the predominant mindset is from upward to downward. Using the terms found in the title above, there is also the experience, less frequently experienced, thankfully, that might be suggested in these terms: From riches to rags. It would be the contrary of the situation just described, where the motion from rags to riches is the dominant driving force, and instead plays out as a downward, sinking sensation of moving from riches to rags.
In this setting, one comes into this world with a silver spoon in his/her mouth, where all of the elements making for success, are at hand, so that a high-energy effort at reaching out to achieve and acquire the building blocks of success are already at hand, but, through unforeseen events, such as the Great Depression in 1929 and the succeeding decade, calamitous losses befell the makers and shakers of society, leaving them and their families deprived of all their assets. They became “losers” of all the benefits they owned—property, financial instruments, lives of leisure—and found themselves at the bottom of the upward ladder toward success, and inexperienced in the struggles needed to move upward.
So the question is presented to us: what is the more devastating experience to undergo: to move from rags to riches, or from riches to rags? And though the more common sequence is the former alternative, instances of the latter are not lacking. And should we ask ourselves: which is the more difficult situation to sustain (even though each scenario contains the same elements, but in a differing sequence), the answer seems obvious.
This leads us to the figure of Jesus Christ, and to the unique experience He underwent: from that of heaven itself, downward (so to speak) to a penurious life in this world of ours, followed by a brief but highly successful three year period of untold success, followed by a calamitous ending in shame and ignominy, but concluding with an unprecedented upward movement into His heavenly home. How do we understand His “life”: from rags to riches, or from riches to rags, or might it be both? Do our lives bear any resemblance to this?
We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.
One thought on “From Rags to Riches to Rags…”
Quite an interesting reflection Father! I believe many, if not most folks experience the “rags to riches” experience during their lifetimes regardless of their station in life. Most people experience the emotional “roller coaster” as I would call it as those that are the “haves” are always striving to have more and those that are the “have not’s” are always reaching for that pinnacle of success. Thanks again.