American Idol, The Lottery, and “Making It”

So, I have been thinking (duh!), and as I was thinking, I considered the celebrities and other wealthy people that we consider to have “made it.” Take for instance previous American Idol finalists like Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson, and Kelly Clarkson. Or consider the “rags to riches” stories of people like Tyler Perry, Kanye West, or Oprah Winfrey. All of these people have at least two things in common: 1. A buttload of money, and 2. An encouraging story of triumph that helped them make it there.

Now, I too appreciate a story of someone overcoming poverty or a dangerous and emotionally damaging youth, but I am a little concerned about the message that our erroneous tendency to equate wealth with “making it” presents to those who have yet to “make it.”

Back to American Idol. At the conclusion of the season, winners receive a contract worth some hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even the runners up make out alright from exposure. But if these past and future contestants believed that these hundreds of thousands of dollars and notoriety would make their issues disappear, I am certain they were disappointed. Let’s try Fantasia Barrino, not to be mean; I truly respect her and pray for her, but her life is a noteworthy example. We have seen the Fantasia Barrino Story and know the hardships she endured. I remember watching her season of Idol with tears in my eyes, so happy that she had won, thinking even to myself that her life would be so much easier. But fast forward a few years from her win, and the money didn’t immediately make her literate; it didn’t keep her from selling herself short in adultery, and it didn’t keep her from a nervous breakdown.

If money is the emphasized goal, why isn’t it ever enough?

With an unclaimed Mega-Millions prize still lurking in Maryland, ever wonder what happens to past winners who swiftly run into windfalls? Bob West of Oregon died within a month of receiving his jackpot, with a canary Hummer still in the driveway yet to be driven. When Denise Rossi of California found that she was a winner, she divorced her husband without a word, I assume thinking she could hoard her millions to herself. But two years later, and husband-less, Denise was ordered to pay a hefty amount to her ex.

All stories don’t end this way, and I am the last person to suggest that money is bad. Even the Bible tells us that “money answers all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). Plenty of charities have been funded from lottery wins, and lives have changed, some for the better. But when it comes to having “made it” I am convinced that there is a deeper level of satisfaction. I always think about this scene from James McBride’s The Color of Water where his mother, Ruth, explains that her years shaking roaches out of her hat in a rickety old apartment with her oldest child and the husband she loved were the happiest years of her life.

There is something so internal to happiness that money cannot access. And furthermore, there are some things that money just cannot change.

I urge this unidentified winner to not be deceived into thinking he has “made it.” If he is insecure, money will not make him more secure. If he is crazy, money will not make him sane. If he is lonely, money will not give him meaningful relationships. If he is content, money will not make him more content.

What will the world do when it discovers that money ≠ “making it?” I marvel at the thought…

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