Wish Fulfillment

Not long ago, the New York Times ran an article about a new play opening in New York based on the life of the 20th-century Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote 70 books while living under a vow of silence. On the face of it, a play about a man who has nothing to say for himself would appear to present a challenge. Even more noteworthy, the production was bankrolled by a former Episcopal monk who had taken a vow of poverty. The play, entitled The Glory of the World, was being mounted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after an earlier run in Louisville, KY. Its executive producer, Roy Cockrum, had been known simply as Brother Roy at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge, MA. This was before he returned home to Knoxville, TN in 2009 to care for his aging parents. One day he stopped in to buy a lottery ticket at his neighborhood supermarket and won the biggest Powerball jackpot in Tennessee history up to that time: $259.8 million. He took a lump-sum payment of $153.5 million and started financing new plays, mostly at nonprofit theaters. The Merton play was his first commercial venture, although it remains to be seen how much commercial potential it has.

Needless to say, Cockrum does not fit the usual profile of a theatrical producer, any more than he fits the usual profile of a lottery winner. He may be the first lottery winner to have declared that living under a vow of poverty had prepared him to win a lot of money. After setting aside some for his retirement, he made sizable charitable donations and established a foundation to fund theatrical productions that otherwise might not see the light of day. Investing in new plays would seem like almost as big a long shot as buying lottery tickets. But Cockrum was no starry-eyed neophyte. He had earned a degree in theater from Northwestern University and spent 20 years as an actor and stage manager before entering a monastery. Amazingly enough, he also had experience with financial windfalls, having previously won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. This time he hired financial advisors and a public relations firm, as well as an arts foundation administrator, to assist him.

Still, the question must be asked: Why would a former monk who had taken a lifelong vow of poverty be buying lottery tickets, which may be the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme? Cockrum recalled having seen a six-hour, two-part theatrical production at the Royal Theater in London and lamenting that no comparable undertaking could be mounted by a nonprofit theater in the U.S. “I promised myself then that if ever I had a pile of dough for some reason, that’s what I would try to make happen,” Cockrum explained. He had it in his mind all along to give away most of his winnings.

The irony, of course, is that people play the lottery to escape poverty rather than vowing to remain poor. And many big lottery winners find themselves impoverished again within a few years, often for the same reason that impelled them to play in the first place. Unused to handling large amounts of money, they opt for lump-sum payouts, then succumb to greedy friends and relatives, reckless spending habits and dubious investment schemes. According to one study, an astonishing 70% of lottery winners manage to blow through their entire windfall within five years, regardless of the size of the jackpot. The beneficiaries wrongly assume they will never have to worry about money again but discover they are far better equipped to handle too little money rather than too much.

Apart from his poverty, Cockrum would appear to have little in common with many other lottery winners. But not so fast. Granted, he has chosen to give his money away, whereas most winners spend it on themselves. However, his reasons for buying a lottery ticket in the first place weren’t so different. Start with the fact that the chances of winning the Powerball jackpot are exceedingly remote: 1 in 292 million, which is more than 400 times less likely than being struck by lightning in any given year. “If you made a logical investment choice, you’d play a different game,” concedes Tennessee lottery director Rebecca Paul Hargrove in commenting on an even bigger jackpot. “It’s not an investment. It’s entertainment…. For two dollars you can spend the day dreaming about what you would do with half a billion dollars—half a billion dollars!” The chief difference between Cockrum and other winners is he dreamt of funding theatrical productions while they dreamt of buying yachts. However, all were ultimately playing the same game: wish fulfillment.

“Wish fulfillment” is a term of art first used by Sigmund Freud to describe the process by which unconscious desires manifest themselves symbolically in dreams. The term has since been broadened by popular usage to include any fanciful outlet for our desires, whether unconscious or not. Hargrove, who is considered something of a rock star in lottery circles, understands this dynamic perfectly. Any dream that requires large amounts of money to fulfill becomes an impetus to buy a lottery ticket, even if the odds of actually fulfilling it are vanishingly small. At two dollars per ticket, the lottery is still the cheapest form of entertainment in town.

Not every human desire requires a big bankroll that can be funded by a winning lottery ticket. Freud, who coined the term, also saw religion as a form of wish fulfillment. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote, “We tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there was a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is the very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.” The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis frankly conceded that he harbored such longings in himself but drew a very different conclusion. He wrote, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." Lewis acknowledged that wishing for something to be true didn’t make it true, but neither was it disproved merely because one wished it to be so.

Allow me to indulge in some fanciful thinking of my own. Let’s say you are God, and you want to bring a play to New York about your faithful servant Thomas Merton. But what kind of producer would see any commercial potential in a play about a monk who had lived under a vow of silence? You have the ideal candidate in mind, a former monk with 20 years of theatrical experience. The trouble is, he has taken a vow of poverty, and now he’s back home caring for his aged parents. Of course, you are God, and you are adept at working behind the scenes. You were there when Moses parted the Red Sea and Jesus turned water into wine. The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are exceedingly remote -- but only if such things are left to chance. All it really takes is a dollar and a dream – or in this case, two dollars.

Adam Piore, “Why We Keep Playing the Lottery,” (Nautilus, August 1, 2013)
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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