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Monday, January 9, 2012

The Power Behind Money

Fresh out of college, yet to make a mark on the world, I landed my first full-time job, proud and eager to flaunt my academia and contribute toward a better society.  The working poor was what Chicago’s local newspaper, the Tribune, labeled all of us case managers working in the social health field.  It is one of the sad ironies of modern life that people often seem to be paid in inverse proportion to their value to society.  At first it didn’t bother me that I earned less in a five-day workweek than bartending a four-hour shift.  I was making a difference helping Chicago’s neediest citizens.  My clients were homeless, mentally ill substance abusers, most of them refugees or immigrants who considered the working poor a label of aspiration.  I attempted to keep this perspective but my spirit thickened with despair. The job had me treading the dark waters of bleakness.  It didn’t take long to realize that four-years of protected college courses did nothing to prepare me for a reality I would otherwise step right over, turn my head and ignore.


Getting acquainted with Chicago’s inner drug world was like rummaging through a musty, cold dark cellar with a lone dim-lit flashlight.  Every turn was a blurry unknown without any clear divisions.  Soon the light flickered on and the underworld once buried and ignored revealed itself in all its grueling misery. I recognized faces on the streets as shattered clients in my office – the same ones that looked up with watery eyes and a luminous raw fragility that spoke no hope.  There was no discounting a reality that quickly and painfully revealed itself.  Every corner was now met with heart-wrenching compassion for the tormented lives that shared our city streets. 

Two years later I relocated to NYC and left my Chicago clients. As irony would have it, I left those who were chained to the bottom 1% of poverty, for clients in NYC who were dancing on top of their mountain of wealth (the group we now reference as the 1%ers).  As a personal trainer in Manhattan’s upper west side, I walked through the homes of multi-millionaires, privy to how society’s elites lived their lives.  I watched as an observer on the periphery of these contradicting worlds.  It’s one thing to live these extremes, another to witness them.  Remaining close enough to be affected yet far enough to view the scene in its entirety, it was like standing at the edge of a rocky overhang and watching the grace of Mother Nature at play while adding to feelings of omnipotence and rapture.   

The clear distinction between these two groups is money.  But beyond this obvious certainty, is what lies beneath.  What we have coined the root of all evil has ironically come to resemble something of the divine.  As Charles Eisenstein said in his article Living in the Gift: “It (money) is an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an invisible hand that, it is said, makes the world go’round.  Yet, money today is an abstraction, at most symbols on a piece of paper, but usually mere bits in a computer.  It exists in a realm far removed from materiality.” 

We are a society bound by relentless greed, obsessively trying to fill a void we mistakenly believe can be filled by monetary possessions.  We depend on money for survival, rely on it for comfort; when we have it we fear its loss and obsess about its gain.  The bottom 1% with nothing, strive to gain something (in my clients’ case it was only crack cocaine they desired considering addiction was a prerequisite to enter the program), the top 1% with everything, strive to gain more – more money, more entitlements, more power.

Money’s original purpose was for convenience and fairness. Before money, there was barter – which wasn’t always fair. Currency allowed symbols and coins to be exchanged more efficiently.  Money at its best should connect human gifts with human needs, so we may all live collectively in greater abundance.   The concepts around money have come to generate scarcity instead of abundance, separation instead of connection.   Now, the more we feed the ego with desire, the emptier we feel and the farther we divide as a people. 

How do we stop praying to a profanity that transformed money into a reckless pursuit of wanting? How do we create new kinds of attitudes and beliefs around this invisible hand that makes the world go’round?  Simply put, we begin within.  We fill ourselves with self-worth, the kind that money can never buy.   Instead of stuffing the void with excess of donuts, drugs, or another pair of stilettos we seal it with self-love, compassion, peace, trust and faith.  We begin to rely on ourselves for our own inner happiness and contentment, gaining comfort simply from our own breath.  In this frame of reference we see the sacredness in everything, including money.  We value life as a gift given to us and we see the interconnection amongst all things.

Nature continues to give and we continue to take in abundance.  Once understanding our dependence on taking, it becomes completely natural to give, for we cannot have one without the other.   Only when our inner “tanks” are filled can we fully and eagerly give of ourselves. We cannot give what we lack.

If you knew the power of generosity, you would not let a single meal go by without sharing it.”  - The Buddah

Thousands of years ago the Buddha already knew what modern science is proving today.  Research has found that the mere thought of giving money to charity activates the primitive part of the brain associated with the pleasures of eating and having sex.  Chemicals like dopamine and serotonin are actually evoked by self-giving.  But generosity isn’t only about money.  Giving of ourselves is the greatest act of generosity. 

Mike Dickson wraps up the power of generosity eloquently and concisely in his article “Reflections on the Generous Life”:
            “A generous life involves putting more effort into looking after each other, becoming more actively involved in our own communities, speaking up for the poorest and most disadvantaged members of our society and becoming their champions and ambassadors.  A generous life involves paying attention to the plight of the world’s poorest people and learning how we can help them, actively campaigning to save our planet, amassing fewer things we don’t need and withdrawing our financial support from those who are destroying our world for purely commercial gain.  It involves acknowledging that we do care about the destruction of the rain forest, about preserving fish in the sea and tigers on land for our children to wonder at when they are grown up.  It involves acknowledging that we value these things more than we value fabric conditioner.”

Maybe the next stage of human evolution will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature – bringing forth the gifts within each of us, taking part in the natural exchange of giving and taking, and breaking the suffocating grasp money has on our spirit.  Can we emphasize cooperation over competition and circulation over hoarding?  Will we ever have the courage to trade a strong economy for a more compassionate, peaceful society that values people over profit?

I’m interested and eager in hearing your thoughts.  

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece.

Anonymous said...

Did not mean to be anonymous Val, it's Jackie :-)

Eldon said...

Let's roll the clock back 10,000 years, before money (symbolic or otherwise). You prefer small, agricultural or nomadic tribes scattered across the world? Tribes living in isolation, ignorant of the world past their own small borders? Warring and killing each other over land rights/women/hunting rights/grudges? People living to the ripe old age of 30-40 before dying to disease and old age? A world where "Yoga Instructor" isn't a profession, but rather farmer, hunter, gatherer, and parent would be much more likely?

One could argue that money has enabled the development of writing, law and modern civilization as a whole. Profit motive has driven profound improvements (not the only ones) in our world— this is without question. Does our civilization have opportunities for improvement? Should our goal be more peaceful and compassionate? Emphatically yes! Is "money" the *source* of greed? Of evil? Of human suffering? Certainly not. Humans have been capable of these things since the beginning.

Relentless, myopic, exclusive pursuit of gain suggests a certain amount of spiritual bankruptcy, if not sociopathy. This is not to say there isn't a place for healthy competition.

Thank you for the article and for the invitation to discuss. Peace to you and the family!

Unknown said...

Beautifully written; both form and substance.
My first job was also working with the homeless in Chicago; it was a pilot outreach/residential program for the mentally-ill homeless. A very close friend of mine helped me get the job right out of college; I thank her to this day for playing a key role in opening my eyes to what your piece spoke of and what was happening, which I never saw, and it was happening right in my own backyard. What always stuck with me was my roommates girlfriend, at the time, was earning more money than me, working at the front desk of an apartment complex in downtown Chicago than I was working in that pilot program full-time and part-time at a residential program for the chronically mentally ill. She didn’t have a high school diploma and I had my bachelor’s degree with a double minor. Yea Capitalism!!!
Here I am ten years later; working as a certified drug and alcohol counselor in Iowa. I have my masters (graduated magna cum laude) in existential psychology and make significantly less than half of what my neighbor makes, who has his bachelor’s degree and works at Quaker Oats. I used to battle daily, to a degree still do, about the obvious unfairness in the money game; the bullshit, but I now placate myself by taking into account that I love what I do and individuals, from the casual pot-smoker to the daily heroin IV-user, let me into their lives and trust me to help them with their battles; I may be kidding myself but that to me is worth exponentially more than any dollar amount on my paycheck. No matter how small, I feel like I’m turning the world in a more positive direction. Yea Communist Anarchism!!!
I hope you keep your well-written thoughts coming; I dig ‘em the most!!!

Judy said...

Thought provoking piece...brought to mind that my husband was so upset the other day when he tried to give our son a TV set...It was not what Son wanted...Hubby had a bad evening after that...He said the bad evening was because what he had offered was rejected...

Sometimes no matter what you offer (generosity of either time or materials), it will be rejected and the come down from that chemical high can be a real bummer...

Just some thoughts...

Vari Stunatu said...

Eldon, you make some good points, but one can also argue that currency has allowed us to overpopulate and create economically valueless pursuits (like the financial sector, derivatives, etc - in other words, economic bloat).

Also, in terms of spurring improvements and innovations in human society, the promise of wealth is not necessarily what drives people. Jonas Salk invented the vaccine for Polio. He could have made a fortune from that. You know that the Pfizers and the Glaxosmithklines of the world would have jumped very quickly to get their greedy little paws on a patent (just like Monsanto tries to patent seeds and basically own the food supply).

When they asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent for the vaccine, he replied, "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

The monoculture of currency and material reward is simply too crude and limited to encompass ALL of our needs and desires as human beings, and to sustain us on a long term basis.

Money has also contributed to the overpopulation this planet - by the billions of people. It also creates ethical quandaries,

Money is, at best, a stopgap solution in the history of human civilization.