By Jean Fitzpatrick
Leafing through this week’s classifieds in New York magazine, I came across the following ad in the real estate section:
WE NEED HELP BUYING AN APT on the UWS (editor’s note: that’s Upper West Side), 3bd2bath. YOU are a philanthropic, wealthy person who would not miss a million bucks and would be interested in donating (or even investing) in a highly targeted manner: to my family. WE are a wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community, is entrenched, happy and desperately wants to remain on the UWS (lest the city lose yet another wonderful family to the burbs). We can afford 600-700k, so you see the predicament. Can you help us??
Well, I thought, here are some grown-ups who believe in Santa Claus. So this is what Manhattan real estate prices have come to, that people who can afford to pay more than half a million for an apartment are looking for handouts. There’s an absurd Little Match Girl tone to the whole ad: urban Mom, Dad, and kids standing on the sidewalk outside the Upper West Side’s elegant prewar buildings, filled with longing, fingers numb in the cold. In a borough where many pay exorbitant sums to live in apartments not much bigger than a sectional sofa, the ad’s Manhattan real estate envy is familiar to most of us, writ large. Now, there’s something to be said for the idea that not every condo and coop in the city should end up owned by Wall Street people or international real estate investors. And with the richest two percent of people on earth owning more than half of the household wealth, maybe it’s inevitable these days that middle-class people will feel poor. Maybe soon we’ll be seeing similar requests from people asking for a Sub Zero kitchen (“WE are fabulous cooks!”) or a Bose stereo (“WE only listen to classical music played on authentic period instruments!”) or a $4,000 Capresso cappuccino maker (“WE only brew coffee with whole, fair-trade beans!”).
I couldn’t help noticing the theology here. In explaining their “predicament,” the ad’s writers appeal to the good old Protestant work ethic: they are a “wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community.” It’s the word “wonderful” that got to me. Here’s a chance, during this Advent season, to consider the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus. We are brought up to believe that if we’re good boys and girls, we’ll get everything on our Christmas list. Most of us recognize, by the time we reach adulthood, that life just doesn’t add up that way. “Wonderful” people, we discover, experience suffering, disappointment, and loss. There are “wonderful” people living in cities and suburbs — in New York and all over the world — who who go to bed hungry, lack basic health care, and have no roof at all over their heads, let alone a home with two bathrooms. Talk about predicaments.
No wonder the story of a holy child born in a filthy manger touches us so deeply. We are invited to imagine, in the midst of so much hardship, the presence of joy. We’re reminded that we can avoid experiencing a kind of envy that is not only unappealing, but painful, if we turn our gaze to people who have less than we do and focus on reaching out with prayers and help. And in doing so we feel blessed — no matter where we live.
Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst, is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.