My good friend in Buffalo recently told me the following story. The son and daughter-in-law of an old friend of hers went to New York City last month — to see the sights and to shop. The couple is in their 40s and newly married; he is an investment banker; she, a health-care executive. They planned to shop at Bergdorf Goodman, at Tiffany's, and at other expensive shops on upper Fifth Avenue.
After viewing the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on 49th Street and watching the ice skaters, they proceeded up Fifth Avenue. But when they reached 51st Street, they found themselves surrounded by Secret Service agents. You can go no farther, the men said. They were protecting Trump Tower, which is between 56th and 57th streets on Fifth Avenue. The couple had no choice but to turn back, abandoning their plans to spend lots of money in that 20-block radius.
When I heard the story, I did not feel too sorry for the couple. They could find other stores at home in Buffalo or simply shop online. They still had their money. But I was outraged to later read reports that those high-end stores were reducing employee hours because of lower sales or letting workers go — workers from the Bronx and from Queens, for example, who depend on their modest salaries and commissions to support themselves and their families. I guess there weren't too many presents in their homes for the holidays.
"Material values cannot give us peace of mind," the Dalai Lama says in his best-selling "Book of Joy." "We need to focus on our inner values, our true humanity."
That means thinking of others, doing for others and sharing with others.
In terms of individuals' net worth, our country is quite unequal. It would seem that those on the high end should bear more responsibility, and some billionaires do. In 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates founded The Giving Pledge — a commitment by the world's wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy, to helping humanity.
As of June, 154 individuals or couples had pledged. But there are roughly 1,800 billionaires worldwide (most in the United States), so 154 seems a little paltry. Still, those 154 — which include Sara Blakely, founder of SPANX shape wear and the youngest ever self-made billionaire woman, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan — are indeed special people.
There are other ways to give, though.
Dr. Victor McKusick, who passed away in 2008, was the chief of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and known as one of the founders of medical genetics. He made numerous discoveries and received numerous awards, including the Lasker Prize, often referred to as the American Nobel. What few people know is that Victor, who grew up on a farm in Maine, had received a scholarship to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School. Once he joined the Hopkins faculty, he provided a yearly scholarship for a needy student to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School — and he did it anonymously.
Similarly, a friend of mine, also named Lynne, provides a scholarship for a needy student who plans to major in foreign languages, as she did, at the University of Rochester.
As our country shows a greater disparity between those at the top and the rest of us, and we are about to witness a presidential cabinet of billionaires, it is more important than ever to share — in various groups; through churches, mosques and synagogues; and as individuals. For people are far more important than any of the stuff we acquire.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.