Money As Mirror

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the cheapest of them all?"

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 28
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Money may not buy happiness, but it can buy knowledge – self-knowledge, that is – if we watch what it does in our lives. Writer Irv Thomas is a professional vagabond and occasional newspaper columnist who, at the age of 64, has just graduated from college and taken off on a student work program to England.

The most wonderful thing about money is also the most troublesome thing about it. It tells you who you really are.

Most people, I suspect, would say it makes you what you are – meaning either wealthy or poor. But no, it tells you who you are. Sooner or later, and often many times, it puts you in a position of making critical choices in your world. And then you discover who you really are.

Not everyone is happy at learning who they really are. Perhaps in that sense money can tend to make you into someone you aren’t, but not by its plenitude or its shortfall. When my personal world was about half its present age, and I was still struggling under the notion that happiness is somehow brought about by a large and growing income, I once worked as a car salesman and had to confront myself for the first time in my life.

I had become friends there with another salesman, a really decent and good-hearted fellow named Vince, who had shown me the ropes when I first got the job. There came a day when Vince was not at work, and one of his prospective customers walked in the door, asked for him, and was slickly "skated" away by another salesman who knew that I was Vince’s friend and that I had seen it all happen. Skating is a term used in the trade to indicate the virtual theft of one man’s sale by another. He offered me a $50 share in the sale if I would just keep quiet about the whole thing. I took it.

I’ve always regarded that moment as the low-water point of my life. Every man has his price, so they say, and mine was $50.

I don’t mean to suggest that I should have put a higher value on my back-handed dealings. I’m just observing that the stark reality of one’s own dark side is often more readily seen when the price is so cheap. Jim Bakker and Ivan Boesky had such high price tags that they never did realize there was anything shady in what they were doing. And Ronald Reagan is probably still swimming in the magnificence of what a tremendous figure he now commands as an entertainer.

Of course, there are other ways to insulate yourself from that sort of confrontation. A common route is to earn a degree that gains you entry into one of the higher-paying independent professions, such as law or medicine. You graduate into a bubble of entitlement called "expertise" that allows you to charge whatever the market will bear, without ever actually having to consider the human impact of your billings.

I know a doctor, for example, who has no difficulty in billing patients who can’t afford his services as much as $100 for the privilege of an office visit just to find that out! I suspect he loses no sleep over it. His conscience is further shielded by another happy professional convenience: the notion that his time is worth as much as his services. This appears to include the time taken to inform you of a price estimate of such services. And undergirding all of this, his innermost line of defense is the self-importance that attends his status as a professional. He may never have to contend with "who he really is," because all he ever sees in the mirror of his world are two big letters: MD.

On the other hand, he may get it in some other way. There are money dealings that range far afield from pricing and income. There is inheritance and debt, credit cards and lotteries, rewards and bounties, beggars and con artists… the civilized world is hardly more than one great Monopoly(TM) game, a vast assemblage of people engaged in squeezing whatever money they can from everything and everyone in their vicinity. It is utterly amazing, the passion it generates.

And trying to escape it leads you right back into it. I remember folks in California, back in the ’70s, who disdained the whole money-grubbing system, abandoned their birthright to a commercial world and headed for the hills. They grew a little pot for themselves, then a little more for their friends, and before they knew what was happening to them, they were out there "protecting their investment" with guard dogs and shotguns.

That’s the way it happens. You think you’re going in one direction, and suddenly you meet yourself coming the other way. It’s a surprise, and sometimes a shock. Hopefully a shock, because otherwise you barely acknowledge the recognition and it does you no good at all.

I had never thought of myself as someone who would sell out a friend for $50 – or any amount. I dare say the doctor I know hardly sees himself as someone gouging his patients either. And he won’t see that image as long as he’s absorbed with his own significance – as long as he continues to look at his patients’ medical histories instead of the people in need.

There’s the nitty-gritty of it. Money is capable of changing your consciousness, but not until it tricks you into revealing yourself to yourself. And it primes you for that revelation by distorting your view of the world around you.

The people in your world gradually, or sometimes suddenly, become instruments of your economic well-being. Maybe they help it, or maybe they hinder it; either way, their personal individuality is displaced by their role in your finances. When this occurs, and you’re awake enough to catch it, you get a glimpse into the dark side of yourself. Hopefully, it will disgust you. Because then you can make real use of the insight.


What Is Money?

by Alan AtKisson

A few weeks ago, prompted by the arrival of a new credit card into my life, I felt an urgent need to know the answer to the question, "What is money?" I was astonished to realize that I didn’t know. I knew the usual definitions: money is a medium of exchange, a measure of value, and a store of wealth. But these phrases reveal nothing of the essential mystery of money. They describe what money does in our society, not what it is. So I started searching.

My dictionary just deepened the mystery. The word money comes from the old Latin word Monere, which means "to admonish" or "to warn." The word was also a surname for Juno, the matriarch of the gods, in whose temple at Rome money was coined. This news wasn’t very encouraging: it was early in my search, and I was already receiving warnings from the gods.

But I pressed on, dodging lightning bolts left and right, and posed the question to a couple of sagacious friends. Former astrophysicist Robert Gilman – who for the past dozen years has been pointing his telescope at environmental and cultural systems instead of star systems – noted that money is "a convenient way to lose a lot of information." When you buy a new shirt, you have no way of seeing the cotton fields, oil wells, plastics factories, and impoverished Asian laborers who contributed to its production, because the money effectively hides all that.

That was a valuable insight, but not the answer I was looking for. So I consulted Joe Dominguez, a former Wall Street analyst who writes and teaches about personal economics. "Money is just life-energy," says Joe. We each have only so much lifetime, and we seem to spend about a third of it converting it into money, usually through jobs. We spend another third of our lives spending the money, and another third tossing and turning in our sleep because we’re worried about money.

I began to see that Joe’s definition could have a revolutionary impact on one’s attitude toward money and work – but I wanted something still deeper. When pressed, Joe told me a story about a remote Mexican village where, periodically, there was no money – not a single peso in the whole town. Under those conditions, Joe reported, people still invent money: "I’ll give you three hours of my time for a couple of those fish," they might say.

I was puzzled. Why didn’t they just give the fish, and their time, to each other? That’s when it hit me: the dangerous truth about money. It’s the opposite of a gift. A gift is an expression of love and trust and community. Money, therefore, is an expression of our distrust and fear, and our basic separation from each other. It’s not a "measure of value." It’s a measure of our lack of love.

They say that money is the root of all evil. But maybe that’s backwards: maybe evil is the root of all money.

Originally presented as a radio commentary on KPLU-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle-Tacoma, WA. If you are interested in receiving regular transcripts of Alan’s biweekly commentaries on culture and current affairs, or tape copies for broadcast on your local station, write us at PO Box 11470, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

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