I&I

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Powerball

I find the desire to win the Powerball lottery jackpot (US$1.5B) interesting because I certainly wouldn’t want to win. And in order to explain why, I’d like to revisit a favourite story from The Sandman comics, The Season of Mists. But first, let’s think about power itself, which I define as the exercising of energy over time (a definition you will find used in physics). Unfortunately, we don’t have a different word for energy that you store to be exercised later (like money), so I will use the word power to indicate this as well.

Ideally, one would receive power in increments in conjunction with disciplined training and that power would be capped at some point. This situation is the most likely to be sustainable. Power that is received in one fell swoop or that is not earned through effort strains any system considerably. And if the amount of power is too high, its transformative influence will be deforming and destructive.

Powerball has all three strikes against it: a high velocity of reception that makes adjustment difficult, lack of preparation of the receiver and sheer scale.

It’s well known that many lottery winners end up in the same financial situation that they began with. That’s even more rapid than “clogs to clogs in three generations” – an aphorism that describes how family fortunes are decimated by the time the grandkids get their entitled mitts on their inheritance. (Interestingly, there is a similar Chinese aphorism, “wealth never passes three generations.”)

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The Financial Times cites an American research report in which inherited wealth is lost by the third generation in 90% of the cases studied (click on image for the full article; it should give you a good idea of the intense amount of resources required to manage wealth at the $25M+ net worth level – nevermind to use it responsibly).

I’d peg a manageable jackpot for an average Torontonian at $500K- $1 million. If you are emotionally mature and fiscally responsible, you could still keep your head on straight. It’s not nearly enough to stop working unless you’re close to retirement (assuming an income of $50K/year, $1M would buy you 20 years). You could preserve a good degree of anonymity. It would strain some social relations but you could retain normalcy. (Having said that, this amount is well enough for some people to wreak havoc upon themselves and those around them.)

$1.5 billion is completely different. You would excommunicate yourself from society. You could even exile yourself from the self you once were.

I’ll never forget the fear I saw in the face of someone I know who won a lottery (I forgot the jackpot amount but it was in the millions). After the news broke, I can’t imagine how many “friends” and “family” came out of the woodwork looking for a piece. His eyes seemed to plead: please don’t judge me; please still like me for me; please believe that I am the same person. Unearned power had put the fear in this man.

Which brings me to The Season of Mists. In this tale, Lucifer is tired of ruling the kingdom of Hell. He kicks everyone out, closes up shop and then shocks Dream by giving him the key to the place. Both Lucifer and Dream recognize the consequences of this; the immediate transfer of undeserved power is an act of revenge.Sandman-SoM-b

As is typical of his character, Dream spends the rest of the comic angsting over what to do with this burden of responsibility.

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And with good reason. In short order, Dream is assailed by all manner of deities coming out of the woodwork. He is in turns bribed, bargained with and threatened by them. In the meantime, these deities begin to grow irritable and nervous as they await Dream’s decision. Dream both wields power over others (everyone wants something from him) but they all wield power over him (he struggles to make a decision). And so, Gaiman shows how navigating the exchange of power is not a straightforward path, but rather, a shifting one through mists.

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So if you think that you can solve the problem of having too much power by giving it away, take it from Dream. Even getting rid of the stuff is a lot of work if you want to do it ethically!

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I won’t spoil how the story ends, but it’s a fitting one that illustrates something insightful about the nature of power.

When the crisis has passed, Dream concludes: “It is an evil thing, that key. It corrupts, by simply existing.” That power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, are common sentiments and both are accurate. But it is not the whole picture.

Power is neither evil nor good; it is simply the exercising of energy over time. As such, great power presents the potential for corruption or redemption. But to transmute power’s influence from the former to the latter is difficult and dangerous work – and everyone has their limit as to how much they can take.

There’s no way I would invite a winning $1.5B jackpot ticket into my life; where others see gold, I see poison. I don’t touch power that’s going to create more work for me than it’s worth. And I don’t need to. Power is abundant and all around us. Seek out sources of power that strengthen you and that you can reliably give away in forms that benefit others. Seek to cultivate qualities that would protect you against power’s corrosive effects: humility, compassion, resilience, wisdom. Because power isn’t worth much if you’re unable to keep yourself and those around you from being consumed by it. And because when it comes to receiving power, sometimes, like Dream, you won’t have a say in the matter.

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