Greedy Or Not, Here We Come

winter solstice landscape
Say this at least: We have made it to the year 2000.

Against all dire predictions, the Earth has survived. We've gotten past the winter solstice, the longest night of the year with only nine hours and 15 minutes of daylight.

Humanity's need for light and sun is something Paul Winter understands. For the last 20 years, he has led a winter solstice celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

Here's a line from the service: "From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!"

Perhaps that's why we look inward at the end of the year, the end of a century and the beginning of a millennium. It's a good time to wonder where we've been - and where we are going. Correspondent Thalia Assuras reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

"I rather like the idea that people are saying, 'Now this is time to stop and take stock of who we are, as a nation but also very much as individuals,'" says Sissela Bok, a writer and moral philosopher.

"That's what gives meaning to their lives," she says. "It doesn't matter how rich you become if you have lost your sense of yourself."

At the dawning of the new millennium, there is no easy handle to define Americans. The stock market is hot. Jobs are plentiful. Millionaires are a dime a dozen. But still the gap between rich and poor in America, and between the rich and the middle class, for that matter, is widening.

The most successful new television show is called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The answer apparently is everyone. Most Americans believe in miracles.

"You don't have to be greedy to know that you need an income in the United States," says political consultant Kevin Phillips.

"But I'd say right at the top, you have people who want to be measured by the yardstick of whether or not their IPO made X billions or Y billions. The madness to rise a couple of ranks in the Forbes 400 list among these people is quite considerable," he says.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich says sex and money are "two constants in society, and they'll never be out of fashion."

"There's a real obsession with wealth right now," he says. "I'm not saying it necessarily in the pejorative sense, that this is the worst thing in the world or it shows that we're all craven and greedy."

Philosopher Bok says it's not the desire to make money that's bad, but how the money is spent once you have it: "In our country, which seems to be doing so well economically, how can we tolerate the amount of illness and homelessness in this, the richest of societies?"

Rich attributes it to human nature. "There'll always be dog-eat-dog competitors and people who don't give a damn about anyone but themselves. That's life," he says.

"But, I think, overall, this is a country that reaches out, whether to people in disaster areas, both in he U.S., around the world, or people who are within one's own community," Rich adds.

A case in point: The soup kitchen at the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York was started in 1982. Every morning, tables for the hungry are set up in the nave of the church: 1,100 meals a day, heavy on starch, some meat and vegetables, 2,000 to 2,500 calories each - enough to get people through the day if they ate nothing else.

Father Bill Greenlaw, rector of the church, believes the desire to help others is a common human trait. But a lot of people would say it's much more common for Americans to be greedy.

"Look," says the priest. "I believe that there's an element of greed, of putting 'me first,' absolutely. We're also created in the image of God, and to me, we can reach beyond ourselves and feel connected, feel informed in our humanity, and feel that there's something to life that is more than just greed and avarice."

The church has kept its promise never to turn away a hungry person during opening hours, even after a catastrophic fire in 1990, which all but destroyed the church. The very next day, amid soot, water and smoke damage, and with no electricity, the church served 943 meals by candlelight.

Still, images of despair from around the world assault the mind. What are we to think? It is a good time to wonder where we've been - and where we are going.

"I think this is a very exciting time," says columnist Rich. "I feel very optimistic about it. At the same time, we can't ignore tremendous inequities. And they're going to surface more and more, both in terms of who has money, the strata of society in terms of wealth, and then how that filters down, whether it be in education, opportunity, health care, whatever."

"I do really have faith in people, yes," says philosopher Bok. "I see so many efforts in this community, and in this country, and around the world. So many more groups now are working on improving the human condition. There are so many more people that are taking that kind of interest than there were 100 years ago."

Say this at least: We have made it to the year 2000. And now it's the days that are getting longer. On Jan. 2, there will be nine hours and 19 minutes of daylight - four more minutes than we had on the winter solstice.

Can spring be far behind?