Say the words “Wheel of Fortune” and most Americans immediately think of a game show. In the game, contestants take turns spinning an enormous wheel, guessing letters, and attempting to solve a word puzzle. Success involves some word skill but a lot more luck. The wheel at the center of the show that determines each player’s winnings is totally random. Contestants can only spin it and hope for the best.
This is interesting to me because it represents a huge break from what “Wheel of Fortune” used to mean. Back in the Middle Ages, “The Wheel of Fortune” was thought of something, like the game show, that controlled our fate but, unlike the game show, was the exact opposite of random. Rather, it followed a very predictable path.
Humility -> Patience -> Peace -> Prosperity -> Pride -> Impatience -> War -> Poverty
According to the framework, all human beings were tied to the wheel and typically moved along all eight points during the course of their life. As you can see, it was not random. One did not go “Bankrupt” and lose all their money based on one bad spin. Rather, one went bankrupt because they entered a state of war.
Notice the circular pattern in this, where the end state of “Povery” leads back to “Humility.” I speak from experience, nothing delivers a dose of humility faster than losing everything you have. But also notice the inflection point in the Wheel, where things go from the ultimate high of “Prosperity” and start drifting downward: “Pride.”
That’s the first step on the way to ruin and the meaning behind Proverbs 16:18 from the Bible. We know that one as as “Pride goeth before the fall” but the original quote is much more poetic. It reads, “ Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
I like this conceptualization of fate better than the game show’s, although the game show is more entertaining. The Middle Ages version of the Wheel of Fortune means we have some agency and control over our own lives and are not mere pawns at the mercy of arbitrary forces and blind luck. Our destiny is instead determined by the actions we take.
If someone was religious, like the Middle Age thinkers who devised this wheel, this framework kept them grounded. It reminded them when they prayed to God, they were not asking for divine favor and gifts like a subject pleading with a King. Instead they were asking God to grant them the strength to be a good person, humble and patient, to keep them on the road to prosperity.
I was reminded of the Wheel of Fortune when I read David Brooks’ book “The Road to Character” recently. Brooks is sometimes known as the New York Times resident Republican, a conservative to provide some counterpoint to the dominant liberal thought on the Times Op-Ed pages. Despite the fact that I am a left winger in the mold of Paul Krugman, I actually like Brooks. He’s a good writer, has some interesting insights, and he’s not an obnoxious race-baiting buffoon like GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
Brooks covers a lot of ground in his book but it mostly centers around a singular concept – something he calls “The Big Me” to describe our current era. “The Big Me” refers to the spread of a narcissistic mindset where all things that happen revolve around Me. In this viewpoint, I am the center of the universe and all events and people are defined, by me, by how much impact they have on my life. Those who believe in the Big Me are bent on achievement above all else.
In Brooks view, this mindset has taken over in the past 70 years. It’s been prodded along by a number of factors including technological advancement. For example, while we used to take pictures of other people to remember them, now we take pictures of ourselves. We snap “selfies” and post them on Facebook for others to admire. We do this ostensibly to share our achievements but, viewed another way, it’s a form of boasting, saying, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at the cool thing I did.”
Brooks is good in that he’s not a catastrophist. He doesn’t interpret the rise of the selfie as an opportunity to lecture us about our evil ways or make damning judgments about us. In his view, the rise of narcissism was partially good in that it urged people to make something of their lives, to achieve things. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Posting selfies on social media is not the end of the world. Don’t interpret it that way.
But Brooks wonders if we’ve gone too far. The thing about narcissism is it’s insatiable. No matter how much one acquires or achieves, it’s never enough. Behind all the accolades, social media likes, and praise, it’s empty. There’s a great spiritual longing in narcissists. In Zen, it’s called “having a hungry ghost.” This emptiness can never be filled by external forces. When one is constantly seeking validation from others, it’s a sign they lack an inner core.
Also, this overweening pride in one’s own achievements, as shown by the Wheel of Fortune, is the first step towards downfall. Brooks is not chiding us but rather offering a needed corrective against taking a bad step. The U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, we hit the “Prosperity” step on the wheel a long time ago. Maintaining our position here means staying vigilant against becoming too proud.
What is the antidote for this excessive pride and narcissism? Brooks offers a number of suggestions and profiles people like Dwight Eisenhower, Frances Perkins, St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, and Samuel Johnson who led lives in healthy contrast to “The Big Me.” These people were selfless, humble, and guided by a sense of mission. They weren’t devoted to fame and personal glory above all else. Rather they committed themselves to helping others, gaining control and insight over themselves, and maintaining a sense of dignity and grace.
But I’d like to offer a very quick cure for excessive narcissism and we’re about to celebrate it this Thursday. Before it became a holiday largely devoted to eating a turkey dinner with your family, Thanksgiving was about gratitude.
This Thursday, take a break from saying, “Look at all I have acquired, look at I have achieved”, posting it on Facebook, and boasting. Instead say, “I am so fortunate. Thank you so much for giving me so much.” Take time to appreciate all the things you have been granted because doing so will remind you that not everyone is so lucky. Doing so will also help keep you humble, patient, peaceful and prosperous.